April 15, 2019
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With two weeks to go, lawmakers focusing on budget negotiations

As lawmakers enter the final weeks of the legislative session, House and Senate budget writers have started negotiations to reconcile their differing spending plans.

The Washington Research Council published a policy brief this week that describes the key differences. The House proposes spending $52.9 billion over two years plus another $389.6 million from a new workforce education investment account funded by higher B&O taxes. The Senate proposes spending $52.2 billion, or $1.1 billion less than the House.

AWB and employers across the state continue to remind lawmakers the state budget has grown rapidly in recent years — without a big tax increase — and urge them to avoid over-spending.

AWB is also engaged with Senate Bill 5961, which would create a research committee aimed at substantially changing the state's tax structure. Clay Hill, AWB government affairs director for tax and fiscal policy, testified on the bill at a hearing last week. The Lens News and The Washington State Wire covered the story.

Meanwhile, debate continues on education spending as some local school districts face budget shortfalls "attributed largely to the complexities of the state Supreme Court’s landmark McCleary decision, which included a property tax cap of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value," The Spokesman-Review reports.

The Spokane School District, for example, issued 325 layoff notices last week amid a $31 million budget shortfall.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal is calling for the Legislature to lift that local levy lid, allowing school districts to increase property taxes to bring in more money for K-12 education.

However, the Washington Association of School Administrators and the Washington State School Directors' Association say the state needs to set up clear guidelines for how any local levy money can be spent. In an open letter to the Legislature last Thursday, they wrote: "School districts desperately need guidelines from the Legislature to clarify that use of levy dollars for compensation should be tied precisely to duties and responsibilities associated with a specific assignment. Levy dollars used to supplement state funding for teacher salaries must be for extra work that is above and beyond the program of basic education as defined by the state."

Opportunity Washington zeroed in on the same issue in a blog post, noting that: "Elements of the current controversy were predicted last summer, following collective bargaining sessions resulting in unsustainable compensation agreements in many districts. Early last month, some legislative leaders pointed out that the budget challenges some districts are citing amounted, at least in part, to self-inflicted wounds."

The Columbian's editorial board calls for the Legislature to avoid a levy limit lift entirely, saying it would lead to "McCleary 2.0" by returning the burden of paying for basic education to local school districts.

“Indeed, steps must be taken to bolster education funding," The Columbian writes. "But lifting the levy lid would violate the spirit of the McCleary deal."

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State Funding

Lifting levy lid violates spirit of McCleary deal

By The Columbian Editorial Board

Efforts in the Legislature to remove a lid on local school levies represent a step backward for school funding in Washington. Rather than invite a return to inequitable funding and open the door for lawsuits, lawmakers should provide state funding where necessary and adhere to a hard-fought agreement.

Following the 2012 state Supreme Court ruling in McCleary v. Washington, lawmakers took five years to hammer out a compromise in which the state would fully fund public K-12 education. That compromise limited local levies to $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value or $1,500 per student, whichever is less.

That was the promise lawmakers gave to taxpayers in 2017 -- state property taxes would increase in order for the Legislature to live up to its "paramount duty" of funding basic education. In exchange, local levies would decrease. The adjustments would prevent inequalities between districts that were at the heart of the McCleary decision; local levies had been used to fund basic expenses such as teacher salaries, creating disparities between wealthy districts and poor districts.

Now, school districts want the Legislature to keep both state and local property taxes high. Senate Bill 5313 would allow districts to tax up to $2.50 per $1,000 in assessed value -- a 67 percent increase from the current law -- or $2,500 per student, depending on a district's enrollment.

Passage of such a plan would put the state on the road to McCleary 2.0. It would invite the return of an unfair funding system that triggered the lawsuit in the first place and that had the amenities of a public education determined by a student's ZIP code.

Read the full editorial in The Columbian
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