“Reform before revenue” is the battle cry of minority Republicans and moderate Democrats for the 60-day legislative session that began Monday in Olympia. It’s basically a warning that unless some key budget reforms are approved — reforms that stem ongoing deficit projections — they won’t support a tax increase that could ease some very painful cuts to education.
Republicans may be unwilling to go along with a tax increase in any case, even putting a temporary one on the ballot for voters to decide. Moderate Democrats, however, could hold sway. They have enough votes — in the Senate, at least — to force concessions from their more liberal colleagues.
One significant, sensible change would be to repeal two decade-old education initiatives that have been suspended time and again for lack of funds. Together, they carry an ongoing budget liability of well over $1 billion per biennium, and growing, virtually guaranteeing red ink on into the future.
Initiatives 728 and 732 were approved by well-meaning voters in 2000. The former provided smaller class sizes in public schools, and extended learning time for students and professional development for teachers. Districts had flexibility in use of I-728 dollars. Some — the Everett School District is a shining example — used it to keep struggling students from falling through the cracks and improved their graduation rates.
I-732 called for regular cost-of-living increases for K-12 and some college employees.
Trouble is, neither came with a dedicated revenue stream. They were passed during the tech-bubble boom, a time when it was hoped revenue growth alone would be enough to fund them.
Then the tech bubble burst. Later, the housing bubble did the same. Revenues tanked. Lawmakers rightly suspended both initiatives.
With tax revenues continuing to lag, and not expected to improve dramatically anytime soon, the time has come to pull the plug permanently on I-728 and I-732. Doing so, according to the governor’s office, would put the budget on a sustainable path if revenue growth in a recovering economy averages 4.5 percent a year.
That doesn’t mean the basic goals of I-728 should be abandoned, however. They can be met with the full funding of the Legislature’s latest basic education plan, passed in 2009 and affirmed by the state Supreme Court last week as a goal that must be achieved by 2018.
Getting there, one biennium at a time, needs to be the Legislature’s key focus regarding basic education. Existing distractions, including two well-intended but unfunded initiatives, should be removed from the books now.