Education initiatives will challenge budget writers

  • WARREN CORNWALL and ERIC STEVICK / Herald Writers
  • Saturday, November 11, 2000 9:00pm
  • Local NewsLocal news

By WARREN CORNWALL and ERIC STEVICK

Herald Writers

When it comes to education funding, the message from voters appears loud and clear: Spend more.

State budget writers and lawmakers, however, say finding the dollars to meet the demands of two education initiatives overwhelmingly approved Tuesday won’t be so straightforward.

"It’s daunting. It will be an enormous challenge," said Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, co-chair of the House Appropriations Committee, which helps to assemble the state budget.

One measure, Initiative 732, could cost the state an additional $412 million over the next two years by forcing teacher pay raises to keep pace with the cost of living. Initiative 728 earmarks more than $400 million for education in the next two years, according to state budget office estimates.

Politicians will need to find the money without breaking a spending limit voters placed on state government in 1993, and while dealing with the continuing repercussions of Initiative 695. The 1999 initiative canceled the car tax that brought Washington governments $750 million a year.

Doing that will almost surely require either cuts of existing programs or tax increases, said Dave Schmidt, R-Bothell, vice co-chair of the Appropriations Committee.

"It’s either cut or raise taxes. And I don’t think the public’s in too much of a mood for higher taxes," Schmidt said.

The budget that finally comes out of the 2001 Legislative session may hinge on which party winds up in control of the two chambers, a matter still up in the air as absentee votes are tallied for close races.

But election outcomes won’t change certain facts facing budget writers. Schmidt said there will likely be a $150 million cushion between the spending needed to maintain current services and Initiative 601’s state spending cap. That’s less than the added cost of the teacher pay raises.

I-728 doesn’t require additional spending, but it funnels state property tax and lottery proceeds to schools. That reduces the chances of property tax cuts.

Initiative proponents had little sympathy for lawmakers’ concerns.

"We don’t create a budget nightmare, and I don’t think the two of them do together," said Lisa Macfarlane, an organizer of the 728 campaign.

Voters clearly made education a priority, and it will be their challenge to fulfill the initiatives’ mandates, she said.

"Where there is a will there is a way," Macfarlane said. "These guys are budget wizards when they want to be. When we needed a (sports) stadium, it came."

Gov. Gary Locke is scheduled to release a proposed two-year budget Dec. 18. Budget writers are working to fit the new initiatives into the calculations, and are considering cuts, revenue shifts and streamlining to make it work, said Hal Spencer, spokesman for the Office of Financial Management.

But there were signs of frustration at the difficulties of translating voters’ will into fiscal reality.

"The budget is subject to the spending limit, but the voters aren’t," he said.

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