OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday that closing tax exemptions will have to be part of the equation to put more money into Washington state’s education system.
Inslee’s statements come a day after the state Supreme Court held a hearing to have lawyers representing the state Legislature explain why they had not set out a plan for fully paying for basic education.
A 2012 decision by the high court — known as the McCleary case — said lawmakers are not meeting their constitutional responsibility to fully pay for basic education and they are relying too much on local tax-levy dollars to balance the education budget.
Inslee said that lawmakers will have to consider a variety of potential solutions, and he said he will continue to push for the closing of tax breaks that aren’t directly tied to job creation.
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“The Legislature will not be able to comply with the McCleary decision unless there are additional revenues available to put into the school system in very significant amounts,” Inslee said. “That is absolutely clear. And it is becoming clearer to more and more people.”
During Wednesday’s hearing, the court commended the Legislature for passing reforms in the K-12 system and for starting to pay for them. The McCleary decision orders the Legislature to finish paying for the reforms, which may add more than $4 billion to the state’s biennial budget, according to government estimates.
The Legislature was given until the 2017-18 school year to fix the problem.
Among the reforms awaiting payment are all-day kindergarten in every school, a new formula for school-staffing levels and smaller classes in the lower grades.
In June, the court ordered the state to show why the justices should not hold the state in contempt or impose other sanctions.
Inslee said that if the court did find the Legislature in contempt, “I think it is important that it not take action that would shut down government or diminish any of our vital services.”
One court justice on Wednesday noted that if the court decided that every state tax exemption is unconstitutional, it would free up about $30 billion.
Inslee said that while there are valid tax exemptions that bring value to the state, of the hundreds that are currently in place, some are “old barnacles on the ship of state.”
“To me this is one of the more glaring things that I think the public should be rightfully frustrated about, is that we have some of these antiquated loopholes that may have come in two decades ago that no longer are economically viable or productive but are still on the books,” he said.
Republicans in the Senate didn’t jump at the idea.
“The question is whether we have the political courage to prioritize schools like our constitution requires,” said Sen. Bruce Dammeier, a Republican from Puyallup who is leader on education issues for the mostly Republican Majority Coalition Caucus in that chamber.
“The governor is continuing to say we will only fund our schools after we fund other things and if we raise taxes. I think he’s got it wrong. We need to fund education as a priority and then discuss whether tax revenue needs to be addressed for other programs,” Dammeier said.