Senate GOP releases budget with more education money

By Rachel La Corte

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — Senate Republicans on Tuesday released a $43 billion two-year budget that puts an additional $1.8 billion toward education, paid for, in part, by a statewide property tax that ultimately would replace local district levies.

The budget plan — which spends about $5 billion more than the current two-year budget — also relies on about $200 million in transfers from other accounts and spending cuts in some state programs.

The plan was to move quickly to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which was to hold a public hearing Tuesday, and the full chamber could vote on it as early as Thursday.

House Democrats are set to release their budget plan next week.

Lawmakers are in the midst of a 105-day legislative session that is scheduled to end April 23.

One of the issues the Legislature is dealing with this year is resolving the reliance on local levies to pay for teacher and school staff salaries. Lawmakers are working to comply with a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that they must fully fund the state’s basic education system.

Lawmakers have already put more than $2 billion toward the issue since the ruling, but the biggest piece remaining of the court order is figuring out how much the state must provide for teacher salaries. School districts currently pay a big chunk of those salaries with the local property-tax levies.

Under the Senate measure, the new statewide property tax rate would be transitioned in starting next year, but would not be fully implemented until Jan. 1, 2019.

The plan would raise the local school levy in some places, such as Seattle, and decrease it in others.

Republican Sen. John Braun, the chamber’s key budget writer, said that 83 percent of taxpayers would have lower property tax rates under the plan.

The GOP plan also increases the minimum beginning salary for teachers to $45,000 from $35,700, and creates a new housing allowance of up to $10,000 for teachers and staff in high cost of living areas. The plan also prohibits teacher strikes.

The state Supreme Court has said that the state has until Sept. 1, 2018, to fully fund education, but that the details of how to do that — as well as how lawmakers will pay for it — must be in place before the Legislature adjourns this year.

The Senate budget puts additional money into mental health and higher education, but it rejects collective bargaining agreements with state employees that would have cost the state about $500 million over the next two years.

Instead, the budget proposes funding for a $500 raise for all state agency employees, including those in higher education, starting July 1, and another $500 raise July 1, 2018. That change would cost the state about $90 million over the next two years.

Other collective bargaining agreements with the Teamsters Local 117 corrections employers and with State Patrol officers are fully funded as negotiated with the governor’s office, at a cost of about $79 million over the next two years.

The plan fully funds health benefits for state employees as previously negotiated, at a cost of $18 million over the next two years.

Braun said the collective bargaining process lacks transparency, because it is not a public negotiation, and is historically expensive.

“Our paramount duty is to fund education,” Braun said.

Cuts to state programs include more than $56 million in cuts to a program that provides housing-related assistance to people who are unable to work. Savings also include $96 million from the temporary assistance for needy families program, with an expectation that at least $6 million will be saved by using available federal funds.

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