By Josh Kelety
WNPA Olympia News Bureau
OLYMPIA — Despite the passage of last year’s bipartisan agreement to fully fund K-12 public education with a property tax hike, the state Legislature is still wrestling over the issue.
In November, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature needs to ramp up funding for teacher and other school staff salaries to meet its imposed September 2018 deadline, despite the billions that have already been allocated to public education.
However, some lawmakers believe that they’ve already provided adequate funding for public education, and are in disagreement over how to respond to the court’s recent ruling.
The court’s ruling comes after recent dramatic changes: During last year’s legislative session, lawmakers passed a massive reform bill — HB 2242 — that will funnel more than $7 billion to K-12 schools throughout the state of Washington over four years, a move aimed at appeasing the monumental 2012 state Supreme Court McCleary ruling that the state was unconstitutionally under-funding public education.
At the root of the court’s mandate was the fact that, in the absence of adequate state funding for public education, local school districts were relying heavily on property tax levies to finance basic education costs — such as market-rate staff compensation.
While lawmakers already had put money toward education over the years, they hadn’t addressed funding for teacher and staff salaries.
The reforms passed last summer by lawmakers aimed to tackle this issue, by increasing state funding — partly through a hiked property tax — while capping the amount that school districts can bring in through local levies.
Under the reform bill, local levies are to be used for their original purpose, “enrichment” programming, such as extracurricular activities, summer school and tutoring. The limitations on local levies would begin in 2019, while the new statewide property tax kicks in this year.
In its November ruling, the Supreme Court argued that, while the state Legislature is now in compliance with the McCleary mandate, lawmakers need to speed up the implementation of its funding plan for teacher and staff salaries, arguing that the plan, as is, won’t meet the September deadline. The cost of ramping up the state funding to meet the deadline is roughly $1 billion.
$100K per day fine
As such, the court is maintaining the $100,000 per day fines that were imposed back in 2015 as an incentive for legislators to act.
Responses from lawmakers have varied. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed dipping into state reserves to meet the court’s most recent mandate, while Republicans have largely opposed the idea.
Democrats have argued that school districts need stability to reorient to the funding reform package passed last year, and that injecting additional funding will further complicate schools’ budgets and operations.
“This is a major systems change,” said Deputy Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, at a Jan. 16 press conference.
“It does take some time for those changes to get in place so that the increased funding and the improved policies that are coming out of that bill can have a positive impact on kids.”
However, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said that while he shares similar concerns, Democrats are “not going to ignore this.”
Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, and members of the so-called “gang of eight” — a group of lawmakers from both parties and chambers that hashed out last year’s education funding package — said he’s skeptical of dipping into state reserves.
“I believe we’re due for a recession,” he said. “If that were to hit, do we have the proper reserves in place?”
Legislature ‘on track’
House Minority Leader Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said at a press conference last Tuesday that the Legislature is “on track” with its current phase-in period for teacher pay to meet the 2012 McCleary mandate, and does not support dipping into reserves.
“We’ve complied with everything except for the timing,” he said.
In this year’s 60-day short session, the supplemental budget is getting its first discussion in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Chair of the committee Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Kitsap County, said in a phone interview that she plans to address the court’s order in the budget proposal that eventually comes out of Ways and Means in early February.
“My intention is to release a budget that complies with the court decision,” she said.
Rolfes added that she thinks dipping into state reserves is a viable option, but it will require approval with a bipartisan supermajority in the Senate. Otherwise, cuts in other areas might have to be made without additional revenue.
“If we’re not able to do that, we’d need to be balancing the budget based on the funding that we have, which means not investing as much in mental health and opioid addiction and the criminal justice system and some of the other things that we know are high priorities for everybody,” she said.
Rolfes said she plans to release a budget plan in mid-February.
The estimated $1 billion to meet the latest court mandate aside, lawmakers are also facing pressure from school districts feeling the pain of having to adjust to the massive education funding reform package passed last summer.
Specifically, some school districts and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal argue that the reforms passed last year will hurt school districts’ ability to finance their operations.
“We are advocating for you not to roll back levies as aggressively as your plan calls for,” Reykdal said at a Jan. 22 hearing on the subject in the Senate Committee on Early Learning and K-12 Education. “It has to get solved this year.”
Reykdal added that school districts that are currently relying on previously voter-approved levies will be “leaving a lot of money on the table that their voters had said previously should support their kids” once the levy caps kick in.
At the hearing, superintendents from schools across the state testified about problems they’re facing with new law — especially the local levy limitations.
Reykdal has requested a bill — sponsored by a handful of Democratic senators — that would loosen some of the limits on local levies enacted by last year’s reform package and allow them to take in revenue from their local levies if they need more funds than the new cap allows.
Reykdal’s bill has been referred to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
One of the McCleary gang of eight, Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said last Tuesday that the group is meeting regularly to work on the various problems, such as the levy limits, posed by the reform package that was passed last year but wouldn’t give any details on what specific fixes they were favoring.
This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.