As the state Legislature considers accelerating the timeline for implementing its bipartisan agreement to fully fund basic education, which has been demanded by the Washington Supreme Court, great care must be taken to ensure the changes made are focused on enhancing education.
And while that might seem reasonable, it is far from simple. Adding $1 billion to education spending by September puts the state in a financial bind unless taxes are raised or the reserve fund is raided.
That’s essentially what lawmakers are faced with as they begin the 60-day legislative session.
The most prudent course of action might be no action — essentially defying the court order and accepting the fines levied on the state (that, ultimately, will be used to fund education anyway).
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When the deal was agreed to last year, the Senate was controlled by Republicans and the House by Democrats. A special election in King County has now given Senate control, albeit by a razor-slim margin, to Democrats.
While the high court justices agreed the approach lawmakers took to fully fund education is solid — including the changes to property taxes — they want to see money flowing to schools by September, which is the deadline set by the court.
We, too, see that as ideal.
Yet, ideal and practical can often be at odds. Speeding up the process — or borrowing money from the state’s reserve fund, as has been suggested — could create problems while not necessarily making schools better in the long run.
It’s important to keep the framework of the property-tax revisions in place. The way in which the tax burden was shifted is equitable. Those whose houses are higher in value will pay more schools taxes. The Legislature increased the statewide property tax but capped the local levy assessment, thus cutting taxes in Walla Walla by $1.19 per $1,000 of your home’s assessed value in two years.
At this point, only Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has offered a solid option to raise the $1 billion: Use the state’s reserve funds and then refill it with a carbon tax.
A carbon tax is controversial. It should be debated on its own merits and not be tied to education funding. In addition, raiding the “Rainy Day” reserve fund requires a 60-percent supermajority. It’s not likely to happen.
Absent a better plan, it seems reasonable to consider the approach advocated by Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, who was the chief budget writer last year. He said funding shouldn’t be accelerated simply to meet the court order, particularly if doing so would create problems for some school districts.
Instead, as he said, the funding focus should be on using the money at hand to improve special education and other areas of need.
That, it seems, would do more good than putting this solid funding plan in peril to meet a court-imposed, artificial deadline.