Senate budget puts priority on education – protects vulnerable, taxpayers

The Senate Majority Coalition Caucus released a two-year operating budget proposal Tuesday that puts its emphasis on education and services for the state’s most vulnerable, while avoiding general tax increases.

The Senate proposal boosts K-12 education funding by $3.7 billion, raising its share of the state budget to more than 50 percent, its highest level since 1983.

The proposal formally launches the debate that will take center stage during the four weeks that remain of Washington’s 2017 regular legislative session. The Senate makes the first legislative proposal this year. The House is expected to follow soon with a formal proposal of its own.

The Senate’s $43 billion proposal encompasses the K-12 education plan adopted by the Senate in February, which would dramatically increase per-student funding while equalizing property-tax rates statewide. It expands on the college-tuition reduction enacted two years ago by boosting enrollment at public colleges and universities by 1,800 students, 70 percent of those slots in science, technology, engineering and math. The budget also makes major investments in programs for mental health treatment, senior citizens, foster children and people with developmental disabilities.

The Senate budget does not require an increase in taxation, and spending would be sustainable in future years without further tax increases. A budget proposal from the governor last December would require the biggest tax increase in Washington history, $8.7 billion when fully implemented, yet would require a further tax increase of $2 billion within four years.

Senate Ways and Means Chair John Braun, R-Centralia, said the Senate plan addresses the state’s most important needs without raising taxes. He noted that the state’s fast-growing economy has given the state nearly $3 billion more than the last time it wrote a budget, without a tax increase. Braun observed that the growth has occurred because taxes have remained stable over the last four years.

“The decisions we make this year will have an impact that lasts for decades,” he said. “As we crafted this budget we kept four goals in mind.

“We provide the high-quality education system our 1.1 million schoolchildren need and deserve. We protect our most vulnerable citizens by making critical investments in the social safety net. We keep money in the pockets of working families by not raising taxes. And we invest in our priorities in a sustainable way.”

The Senate’s prescription for K-12 education includes a new student-centered model for fully funding basic education, setting a per student minimum funding level of $12,500 a year. Under the Senate plan, by 2019-21, state expenditures for K-12 public education will have doubled since the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision ordering the Legislature to fully fund basic education. The budget also funds dramatic salary increases for beginning teachers. The Senate’s levy reform would ensure all Washington property owners pay the same tax rate, providing tax relief for 83 percent of the state.

“First and foremost, this is an education budget,” Braun said. “What counts most is how the money is spent. This budget implements our education plan, allowing us to meet the unique needs of all students, ensuring a great teacher in every classroom, empowering local decision-makers and providing ample, fair and transparent funding.”

Other major points of the Senate plan include:

  • Enhancing senior programs, including expansion of the meals-on-wheels program, increased vendor rates, and a raise in the personal needs allowance for elderly Medicaid recipients under state care.
  • Improving treatment for the mentally ill, including a $250 million investment over four years to increase capacity at treatment facilities, expand community housing opportunities, and develop financial incentives for effective and appropriate care.
  • Overhauling the foster care system to improve outcomes for children and stem the loss of foster homes.
  • Expanding options for people with developmental disabilities, including a new program providing Medicaid support for family caregivers.
  • Targeting public safety expenditures to areas of greatest need, including funding to make the 4th DUI offense a felony requiring prison time, and to implement reforms at the troubled state Department of Corrections. It also funds longer sentences for habitual property offenders, sexual offenses against children, domestic violence felonies, and crimes against vulnerable adults.
  • Reforming welfare programs to emphasize employment requirements, expand vocational training and reduce state overpayments.
  • Reducing the state’s long-term liabilities, by paying down the unfunded liability in the Public Employees Retirement System Plan 1 pension program by $700 million – reducing eventual state expenses $1.4 billion.
  • Providing reasonable compensation for state employees, by granting all state employees a $1,000 pay increase, fully funding step increases based on experience, and maintaining current health benefits. The budget rejects most of the costly collective bargaining agreements negotiated last year between public employee unions and the governor’s office.

The Senate budget preserves the state’s four-year balanced-budget law, which ensures budgets will be sustainable over the long term. It also keeps intact the state’s Rainy-Day Fund, preserving nearly $2 billion dollars in savings to be tapped in case of future economic downturns or other financial emergencies.

“We have to recognize there will be a tomorrow,” Braun said. “Irresponsible short-term spending puts essential programs at greater risk of being cut when the economy slumps. Not only do we avoid tax increases today, we make it possible to avoid them in the future.

“We faced many challenges as we developed this budget. By getting our priorities straight, we demonstrated we can make meaningful improvements in the programs Washington considers most important, without putting jobs or our economy at risk.”