SEATTLE — The state budget director said Thursday lawmakers will not finish the work required to fix the way Washington pays for public schools during this legislative session, because they require deadline pressure to reach the difficult compromises needed to cut a final deal.
Budget director David Schumacher said during a media briefing that no one ever expected the Legislature to finish the work set out by the Supreme Court in the 2012 McCleary decision until the 2017 session, because the court set a 2018 deadline.
But that doesn't mean they haven't been working on a solution to the remaining issues up for debate, after finding more than $2 billion a biennial for classroom supplies, student transportation, smaller class sizes in the early grades and all-day kindergarten. The remaining issues focus on the state's overreliance on local school-tax levies and the related issue of how to pay teachers with mostly state dollars.
"We are not waiting until then to get started. We've been talking about this for quite a while," Schumacher said. "Just because there are no public discussions, doesn't mean we aren't working on this."
Schumacher said the governor will share the results of those ongoing discussions late in December. That would be after the November election, but before the Legislature reconvenes in January.
In the McCleary decision, the court found that the way Washington pays for public schools is unconstitutional, because state funding for basic education is not ample or equitable across the state. Local school levies are at the heart of that inequity, and most agree it's the most complicated piece of the school funding puzzle.
The Supreme Court is holding the state in contempt of its ruling. Earlier this year, the court started imposing a $100,000-per-day fine on the Legislature because the lawmakers have not agreed on a plan for completing the work.
Lawmakers have proposed a plan this year, but it does not answer the question of where the money will come from to complete the work. Schumacher says that is a plan, not a solution, and although he will not second-guess the court, he thinks the plan will suffice for now.
Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said during a legislative forum on the education funding debate that ongoing meetings between lawmakers from both parties and both houses have been "absolutely constructive."
"We are getting really close," she said.
Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said that once lawmakers agree on the plan for finishing their McCleary work, then they can start focusing on the substance of that plan, with meaningful proposals.
Everyone involved in this ongoing discussion about school funding in Washington state has emphasized how complex the issue is, not just politically, but geographically and financially.
For example, some people have suggested the levy problem could be solved by just transforming local levies into state school taxes. But that doesn't solve the equity question, because some taxpayers do not pay local school levies, some pay less than a dollar per $100,000 in assessed property values while others pay $5 or more per $100,000 in value.
Under a so-called levy swap, lawmakers would have to decide who is getting a tax increase and who is getting a tax decrease even if they try to make the change revenue neutral, Schumacher said.
Schumacher said there are several other ideas still on the table for solving this problem, including the governor's proposal last year for a new capital gains tax, and each potential solution has a variety of nuances. The governor is still not convinced the solution should focus on property taxes, he said.
"There is too much to do a year faster than we're required to do it," Schumacher said, noting that even simpler state problems are rarely decided before the deadline.
Deadlines drive solutions, he said.