Yes, Democrats’ budget proposal swipes money from K-12

It’s not often that I’m truly surprised by what happens in Olympia, but Monday was one such occasion. The choices House Democrats made in their supplemental budget proposal are bewildering. Their plan makes it harder to fund K-12 schools in the future – no matter how loudly House D’s protest that this isn’t the case. It is the case.

The House Democrats’ budget proposal takes away $487 million in funding for K-12 and replaces it with an I.O.U. If passed, their budget will only add to the list of difficult tasks lawmakers face next year.

In the last few years legislators have, on a bipartisan basis, greatly increased K-12 funding to meet the McCleary decision, to the tune of about $4.6 billion. $4.2 billion of that pays for McCleary-required items such as K-3 class size reductions, transportation costs, and all-day kindergarten, and legislators funded these costs at responsible levels that could be maintained in the four-year budget outlook. Under this approach, the current biennial budget passed last year with the largest bipartisan majorities in memory. The House Democrats’ new proposal is an about-face from this solid approach.

Adds to the problem
The list of agreements lawmakers must reach next year is formidable enough as it is. In addition to funding the final McCleary installment, legislators must settle the thorny issue of school districts’ over-reliance on local levies. Any negotiation over a sum of money that large (and who controls it, which is the real bugaboo) will be complex and likely contentious.

With their new supplemental budget proposal, House Democrats are complicating matters at a time when the path forward surely does not need additional hurdles. The way House Democrats have structured their new spending means money available for education in the 2017-19 budget will instead be spent elsewhere. Among other things, the House proposal would spend $318 million from the state’s emergency fund for wildfires and homelessness, shift another $148.9 million for capital projects, boost mental health spending and put $99 million toward teacher salaries.

It basically adds an additional $487 million problem to the next budget cycle. Let’s say the local levies issue will take $3 billion to resolve next year (estimates vary). Under the House proposal, it’s a $3.5 billion problem. They insist, though, that it’s no problem at all.

“Your actions speak so loud I can’t hear a word you’re saying”
House Democratic leaders insist this is all no big deal. It’s just theoretical future money in their view, so what’s the big deal? House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan (D-Kent) downplayed it as just a different approach to accounting.

Budget chair Hans Dunshee (D-Snohomish) had an even stranger take on the matter:

“In a phone interview, Dunshee said House Democrats aren’t planning to cut funds to reduce class sizes in the early grades. He said he put the cuts in the proposal to bring attention to how much money is needed to fund McCleary, as well as the current system of projecting budgets four years in advance, which he called ‘voodoo economics.’” [emphasis added]

Does that make any sense? They want to cut education funding as a way to highlight an education funding problem? Try not to get stuck in the desert with Rep. Dunshee; under his logic he’d dump out your canteen to highlight the water shortage.

This is yet another example of legislative Democrats saying they’ll put education first in the budget without actually doing it. For the last three years, they’ve been talking about fully funding education at every turn. Even over small amounts, such as $9 million for charter schools, they’ve intoned into their dais microphones, “At a time when we need every penny to fund McCleary,” they can’t support any education spending that doesn’t meet the court’s order. Then they turn around and add a new $487 million problem and try to tell us it’s not what it looks like.

Sen. Steve Litzow (R-Mercer Island) said of the plan, “House Democrats’ cut to education funding demonstrates exactly why we’re in the position we are today facing a state Supreme Court mandate and a system that does not work for all children. Their plan replaces real dollars with promises, which the Supreme Court has rightly rejected.” It will be interesting to see, if House Democrats get their way, how they explain to the court that their actions don’t actually add to the problem. Maybe they’ll say it’s just an accounting issue.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.