Washington Gov. Jay Inslee sought to use his second inaugural address to motivate lawmakers to finish the job of fully funding the state’s K-12 schools.
OLYMPIA — Calling the need to fully fund Washington’s K-12 public schools a historic opportunity, Gov. Jay Inslee Wednesday used his inaugural address to motivate lawmakers to come together to complete the court-ordered task.
The Democratic governor’s remarks appeared to offer Republicans an olive branch at a time when legislators remain divided over how to fund education — and how much it will cost.
Instead of firing up the Democratic base, Inslee reminded lawmakers of their work in recent years tackling other issues, as well as the work they’ve done on the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision. That landmark 2012 ruling declared that Washington was unconstitutionally underfunding its public schools.
“We’re no strangers to working through hard challenges,” Inslee said to lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and other elected officials in the House chamber, where he was sworn in for a second term. “We’ve done some hard things together in the past four years.”
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Even as he pitched his ambitious proposal for a 2017-19 state operating budget and McCleary solution, the governor in his speech acknowledged there were other paths toward finishing the job.
“His acknowledging that, I think, is great for everybody down here,” House Republican Leader Dan Kristiansen of Snohomish said in a news conference after Inslee’s speech. There are several other ideas on how to fund education that might materialize soon, Kristiansen added.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib called Inslee’s remarks “very statesmanlike” and praised the governor for reaching out to lawmakers in both parties.
Inslee in his remarks compared finishing the remaining part of McCleary — how the state should pay for school-worker and teacher salaries — to scaling a mountain.
A solution will require the state to fund educator salaries that some school districts are currently paying with local property-tax levies. Some estimates have pegged a cost at $3.5 billion every two years.
That’s a substantial amount of money for a state that adopted a 2015-17 operating budget of $38.2 billion.
Since 2014, justices have held the state in contempt for failing to make enough progress on a full funding plan to satisfy McCleary.
The court in 2015 imposed a daily $100,000 fine against the state and has given lawmakers and the governor to the end of this legislative session to produce a plan.
But Inslee in his speech emphasized that a solution could be close at hand.
“We’ve climbed high enough to see the summit,” said Inslee, a Democrat. “We’re almost there.”
Still, the speech and GOP reaction to it displayed a deep philosophical divide between Democrats and Republicans on how to fund teacher and other school salaries.
Inslee reiterated his budget plan’s McCleary solution and tax package. Among other things, Inslee has proposed new taxes on carbon and capital gains, as well as a hike in part of the state’s business-and-occupation tax.
The governor’s proposal, in turn, would cut property taxes for most Washingtonians.
Republicans in the past have favored a so-called levy swap as a McCleary solution. Some of those plans would increase property taxes in some districts to pay for property-tax cuts in other districts.
Kristiansen and other GOP leaders said in a news conference they want a funding plan to directly address the unequal nature of the current levy system. And in the official GOP response to Inslee’s speech, Rep. Gina McCabe, R-Goldendale, Klickitat County, pushed back against Inslee’s tax plan.
“It’s troubling the governor has released a budget that relies on billions of dollars of new taxes,” McCabe said in the response. “These proposals do not foster business expansion, they stifle it.”
The Republican-controlled state Senate, meanwhile, on Wednesday put in place a Senate rule requiring a two-thirds majority vote to approve any tax increases. The GOP instituted a similar rule in 2015, but only created the threshold then for new taxes, not increases in existing taxes.
“We believe that if taxes become necessary they should have a high threshold,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, Adams County, said. “We are not the tax-first caucus.”
Then-Lt. Gov. Brad Owen in 2015 said he would decline to enforce the Senate rule, saying he believed it to be unconstitutional.
Habib, who was sworn in Wednesday and now presides over the Senate, said he’d examine the rule if a bill moves forward and sparks a challenge to it.
Inslee’s inaugural address comes in the first week of what’s expected to be a long and hard-fought legislative session over education policy, taxes and other issues.
After pushing off the remaining piece of the McCleary ruling for years, legislators are deadlocked on the approach and cost.
Democrats put forward a plan last week, while Republicans released a set of “guiding principles” on how to tackle McCleary.
In his budget plan released last month, Inslee proposed raising $4.4 billion in new taxes for the state’s operating budget, including $2.75 billion as a start to funding McCleary.
Aside from trying to fully fund schools, lawmakers are looking at ways to improve the state’s mental-health system.
Washington faces a shortage of mental-health beds and workers. Meanwhile, the state’s largest psychiatric hospital, Western State, is under a special improvement plan with the federal government after being at risk of losing its certification.
In Wednesday’s post-speech news conference, Schoesler called improvements to the mental-health system a “darn high” priority.