The Legislative Building is shown Friday at the Capitol in Olympia. Details of a new two-year state operating budget were released Friday, the same day Washington lawmakers must vote on the plan in order to prevent a partial government shutdown. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

The Legislative Building is shown Friday at the Capitol in Olympia. Details of a new two-year state operating budget were released Friday, the same day Washington lawmakers must vote on the plan in order to prevent a partial government shutdown. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

Editorial: We have a state budget, but at what cost?

By The Herald Editorial Board

It’s all over. Except for the unintended consequences.

With only hours to spare before triggering a partial state government shutdown and the layoffs of 32,000 state employees, the Legislature delivered a budget and its resolution of the school funding crisis to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.

But any sense of accomplishment felt by lawmakers is tainted by the knowledge that the details of a $43.7 billion two-year budget — negotiated behind closed doors — were only available to all lawmakers on Thursday evening and weren’t released to the public until Friday morning, less than a day before it had to be signed by the governor at midnight that evening.

“I don’t think any of us know what is truly in this budget,” Sen. Rueven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said as the chamber’s Ways and Means Committee voted to move the budget to the floor Friday morning. “I think we really owe the people of the state an apology.”

The budget was adopted with limited opportunity for amendments, no public hearings before either chamber, little debate and little opportunity for the public to begin to understand a 616-page document that represents a 12 percent increase in spending — $5.2 billion — over the current budget and makes major changes to the state’s tax system and how teachers are compensated.

A quick review of what the budget provides shows a lot to be satisfied with. The budget provides $1.8 billion more for K-12 public education and does so while making other necessary investments, including additional outlays of $75 million for higher education and financial aid; $618 million for state employee contracts; $102 million for the state’s mental health system and $44.4 million for crisis centers, community treatment beds and mental health treatment; $6.3 million to create a new Department of Children, Youth and Families; and $25.1 million to expand Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program for 1,800 more children.

And significantly, the Legislature has offered a solution intended to resolve the state Supreme Court’s McCleary mandate — the 2012 decision upholding the state’s paramount duty under the constitution to provide ample funding for education. For years, while the lawmakers balked at increased state funding for K-12 education, they allowed local school districts to provide a larger share of teacher compensation and other basic education supports through local school levies. The court found that created inequities throughout the state among districts, depending on the tax base and the willingness of voters to approve levies.

The Legislature’s solution is for the state to increase its own share of local property taxes, boosting the rate 81 cents to $2.70 per $1,000 of assessed value, while decreasing the amount that local school districts can request in levies from their voters. Local school district levies will be capped at no more than $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value or $2,500 per pupil, whichever is the lesser amount.

The result is believed to mean higher property taxes for some regions including Seattle, Bellevue and Mercer Island, but reductions or little change for taxpayers in other districts.

While the so-called levy swap will provide most of the funding for increased K-12 funding, there are other sources, including an end of exemptions for the sales tax on bottled water and another that has benefited the state’s oil refineries. But a significant amount of money is provided by skimming $898 million from the state’s reserves and another $254 million from its Public Works Assistance Account.

That’s $1.5 billion from one fund that many believe should be reserved for emergencies and economic downturns and another that helps the state’s cities and counties quickly and affordably fund needed improvements to roads and other infrastructure.

And while the budget provides increases for teacher salaries, as well as adjustments for communities with higher costs of living, the legislation also does away with the current salary schedule for teachers, which bases compensation on years of service and additional education.

Meanwhile, administrators at the state’s 295 school districts, including Everett, had their heads down Friday attempting to assess what the legislation means for each district, how much funding they can expect for basic education and what they’ll be allowed to collect from school levies.

The reduction in what Everett could collect from local levies could be reduced by nearly half of what it currently collects, said Everett Superintendent Gary Cohn. While the burden of paying a significant part of teacher salaries is supposed to be removed by the state, it’s not clear what will be left for Everett and other districts to use for enhancements outside of basic education.

“They say we’re getting more money. They say it’s more equitable for all districts. They say we’re going to be better off, but we haven’t enough information to figure out how yet,” Cohn said Friday afternoon.

The good news is that lawmakers agreed to a budget and avoided a government shutdown. The bad news is that school districts, teachers, parents, students and taxpayers had less than 18 hours to understand what was proposed and no opportunity to be heard before it became law.

That’s unacceptable. And unnecessary. There’s nothing in the final budget agreement that couldn’t have been arrived at during the regular session that ended April 23 or even before the end of the first two 30-day special sessions that followed.

Lawmakers in both parties and in both chambers owe us an explanation.

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