State road money may be used to fund school buses

OLYMPIA — A bipartisan panel studying ways to boost education funding is eyeing the state’s transportation budget as a vehicle for driving more dollars into public schools.

Proposals in front of the Joint Task Force on Education Funding would pay hundreds of millions of dollars in school bus services out of the transportation budget rather than the general fund starting in the next biennium.

Money freed up by the shift could then be used in other areas of education, such as all-day kindergarten, to help lawmakers meet their constitutional obligation — and comply with a state Supreme Court order — to amply fund basic education for students.

The initial down payment for compliance with the directive in the so-called McCleary case is roughly $1 billion in the two-year budget that begins July 1, 2013. The task force is expected to issue recommendations for raising that amount by the end of the month.

Ideas floated by three of the panel’s four Democrats rely on the transportation budget to pick up some, most or all the tab for school bus services, which are estimated to be $900 million in the next budget.

“When you look at trying to raise $1 billion over the next budget for education there just aren’t a lot of sources,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, who serves on the panel. “This is one idea for discussion that is sort of outside the box.”

In proposals to the task force Dec. 5, Sullivan suggests shifting all the money while Democratic Sens. Lisa Brown of Spokane and David Frockt of Seattle presented ways to pay roughly a third or two-thirds of the bill.

Using the transportation budget rather than the general fund to pay for school buses is not a new idea. It’s not gained traction before because it seemed it could only be done by diverting dollars away from public transit, state ferries or road projects.

Sullivan said he’s not looking to siphon money from existing commitments. Instead, he said any money for bus service would have to come out of revenue generated from a transportation funding package lawmakers may be put before voters next year.

“The only way (the shift) would happen is it would have to be part of a broader transportation package,” he said.

That makes a shift potentially palatable to other panel members and the chief of the state public school system.

“It is interesting,” said Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, one of four GOP members on the panel. “This concept tends to have more support than others. It depends on what the impact will be on other parts of the transportation budget to know if this is a good idea or not.”

Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association and a gubernatorial appointee on the task force, said it could help the state comply with the court order.

“It is by no means the whole ball of wax, but it is one way to possibly increase funding for schools and live up to the McCleary decision,” she said.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said giving a slice of any transportation revenue package to schools may gain favor with voters. Without such a new revenue stream and a new revenue source for schools, “you’d run into a lot of roadblocks.”

But the leader of the House transportation committee doesn’t like the shift at all.

“I can understand (task force members) are desperately looking for anything,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, who will write the House spending plan for roads. “I feel like this is the first attack on the transportation budget. If you take that much money out it will change the face of transportation policy in the state.”

Clibborn has worked months constructing a package of tolls, fees and taxes along with a plan for spending the money and a political coalition to support both.

While Democrats on the task force think voters may like steering some of the money to schools, Clibborn is less sure.

“This is a pretty big chunk. I don’t know if it is defendable,” she said. “I don’t know if the public wants to do that.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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