SINCE the Legislature wrapped up last spring, the political realities of Olympia have shifted. The state Supreme Court menaced the Legislature with legal threats over how it funds education. And the fall election cycle tipped toward Republicans, despite a $1.25 million effort to seat more Democrats and make climate change the central issue.
Gov. Jay Inslee lofted a bold budget proposal this week that recognized some of the new realities, but missed the mark on others.
His vigorous response to the Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling would dramatically increase education spending, including a smart expansion of early learning and an evidence-based investment to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through grade 3. He shows leadership in not fully funding Initiative 1351, the oversized new mandate to reduce all class sizes.
Education is where the governor and the Legislature need to focus.
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But Inslee’s proposal missed the bigger message sent by voters, who gave the GOP full control of the state Senate, and whittled down Democratic control in the state House. To make investments, elected leaders need to hew to a bipartisan fiscal path, one that emphasizes accountability for new spending and a sustainable-sized budget.
Inslee’s budget proposal also does not remedy the Supreme Court’s fundamental objection in the McCleary ruling: The state is off-loading its paramount duty to basic education onto local school levies. Fixing that is a complicated, structural problem that must be addressed this year, given the court’s contempt sanction looming over the Legislature. If lawmakers do not do better, justices said penalties would follow.
New education investments — from birth to post-doctorate level — also must come with strings requiring better outcomes for students. There is not enough of that in Inslee’s budget. Teacher pay raises, included in Inslee’s proposal, should be tied to performance. Added funding for local school districts should come with a mandate to graduate more kids college- or career-ready.
To pay for added spending, Inslee’s budget adds an eye-popping $5 billion over the next two years. It includes an audacious new cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions that would draw nearly $1 billion a year from about 130 entities, many of them in the energy sector, and would spend a big chunk of it on education. His cap-and-trade plan would also help pay for transportation investments, including finishing the Highway 520 bridge.
Climate change is real and serious, and Inslee’s plan to ease the state away from carbon usage is an important goal.
But linking revenue from a new cap-and-trade regime to education funding is risky. If it falls apart, or is delayed, education investments would be threatened.
It is also unclear what impact his cap-and-trade plan would have on a still-recovering state economy, one that is humming for citizens who live and work within sight of the Space Needle, but sputtering elsewhere.
A revenue-neutral approach — one that would mitigate consumer’s costs of a carbon tax — would be both less financially risky and more politically viable in the divided Legislature.
Budgets are a statement of priorities, and Inslee’s rightly prioritizes the state’s rickety mental-health and child-welfare systems. Both are core functions of government. Both have been found woefully inadequate by courts.
Washington is a blue state, with steady support for Democrats elected statewide. But Inslee shouldn’t mistake that for deep-blue support in the Legislature. Past governors, confronting similar political divides, reached across the aisle with moderate, sustainable budgets.
Inslee has his eyes on a horizon that is being altered by climate change — an important challenge. But Olympia needs to focus this year on the urgency of its education system and ensuring better outcomes for students.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).