How do Democrats and Republicans differ on their plans for the state budget? Take a look at a few key areas.
OLYMPIA — Possibly the biggest difference between the Republican and Democratic budget proposals is the gap between their ideas of how to compensate teachers and state government employees.
Like Gov. Jay Inslee, Democrats propose approving collective-bargaining contracts, noting it’s been six years since cost-of-living adjustments. The plan provides about $385 million for cost-of-living raises to state-funded K-12 public-school employees. That amounts to a 3 percent raise in the 2015-16 school year and a 1.8 percent raise in the 2016-17 school year. Both raises are higher than the ones called for in Initiative 732, the ballot measure approved by voters in 2000 to provide cost-of-living raises for school employees.
Also in the Democratic House plan is a $203 million increase to state funding for school-employee health insurance — bringing teachers to parity with other state workers in this area.
What to spend and where to spend it?
Here’s how Democrats and Republicans propose to fund some major areas of the state budget:
K-12 and early learning
The House Democrats’ spending plan — which earmarks about $1.4 billion to satisfy the Supreme Court’s order in the McCleary school-funding case — includes all-day kindergarten, fewer students per class in grades K-3, an expansion of the early-learning system and cost-of-living pay raises for teachers. The House plan also includes about $203 million to boost K-12 employees’ health-insurance plans that the Republican proposal leaves out. Democrats have proposed raising about $1.5 billion in new revenue to help pay for increased education spending, in part by starting a new tax on some capital gains and raising a segment of the business-and-occupation tax.
The Senate Republicans propose spending about $1.3 billion to meet the state Supreme Court’s order to boost schools funding. Their spending plan includes all-day kindergarten for all public-school students, fewer kids in K-3 classes and an expanded preschool program. The proposal also funds the first cost-of-living pay increases for teachers in six years, though a slightly smaller increase than the House proposes. Republicans suggest paying for these changes without tax increases, in part by using about $300 million in recreational-marijuana tax revenue and transferring about $380 million to the general fund from other accounts.
House Democrats propose a two-year tuition freeze at state colleges and universities, and a $55 million boost to college financial aid, making 8,500 more students eligible. About 70,000 students receive state aid for college, but another 33,000 who qualify get nothing. Democrats say their budget cuts that number by about a quarter. The House budget also includes $60 million in scholarships for students majoring in STEM. The House’s higher-education increases are tied to the proposed capital-gains tax, projected to raise $570 million for the biennium. About $170 million of that money would go to higher education.
Senate Republicans propose a 25 percent tuition cut at four-year institutions; community-college tuition would essentially stay flat. Republicans say the $221 million they add to higher education backfills the tuition loss, and as a result of the tuition cut, financial aid could be reduced by $75 million. The Senate also sets aside $22 million in scholarship aid for students studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
The Democratic proposal, like the GOP plan, funds $42.6 million for psychiatric evaluation and treatment beds. Democrats call for $27 million to reduce wait times for adult criminal-trial competency evaluations and related state hospital beds. The Democrats propose $17.2 million for state hospital improvements, including on safety, employee retention and patient care. There’s $26.1 million to account for mental health and chemical-dependency caseloads, and $16.8 million for related treatment services. Additionally, there’s $4.4 million more in Medicaid funding for substance-use disorder programs and a $10.4 million cut for living-skills programs — the last of which is identical to a decrease in the Republican proposal.
The Senate Republican proposal provides $42.6 million for evaluation and treatment beds for psychiatric patients in community hospitals, free-standing centers, and for 30 beds at Western State Hospital. There’s $29.8 million to reduce the wait times for competency evaluations for adults waiting to stand trial, as well as for related beds at the state’s psychiatric hospitals. The GOP also calls for $10.9 million for Joel’s Law, a bill passed in the Senate to let families petition a court to commit a family member after the state has refused. The plan funds $7.3 million for safety at the state’s two psychiatric hospitals. The GOP proposal reduces Medicaid and non-Medicaid spending for regional support networks and adaptive-living-skills programs by nearly $41 million.
Natural resources and state parks
The Democratic plan increases parks funding by $28.6 million and funds $4.6 million for lidar-radar mapping intended to help determine areas around the state prone to landslides. The plan spends $13.7 million for the Democratic version of an oil-train and hazardous-material safety bill. The plan spends $7.6 million on the Voluntary Stewardship Program for agricultural activities, and $5.9 million for an adaptive-management program for forests and fish. The Democratic plan gives an increase of $2.5 million for wildfire response and $1.6 million in increased emergency food assistance.
The Republicans add $5 million to parks. The plan spends $6 million for the GOP version of an oil-train and hazardous-material safety bill. It matches Democrats’ spending on Voluntary Stewardship Program and forest and fish-adaptive management. The GOP eliminates the state’s Watershed Planning Program; finds $2.1 million by reducing payments to counties with Department of Fish and Wildlife land. The GOP does not appear to include money for lidar-radar mapping; Sen. Andy Hill, chief GOP budget writer, said that may be an oversight in need of review.
Staff reporters Katherine Long, Joseph O’Sullivan and Leah Todd contributed.
The Democratic plan — which would raise $1.5 billion in new revenue to pay for these costs and other programs — would also approve the state-employee contract raises that were negotiated or arbitrated last year and which would take $161.5 million out of the state general fund. The two-year plan provides for another $95 million non-represented employees of colleges, universities and state agencies.
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The compensation increases represent a lot of spending that Republicans don’t necessarily want to see.
“I think that’s going to be one of the major points of contention in the negotiation,” said Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, who is GOP House floor leader.
Republicans argue that in the past six years many state workers and teachers have received pay increases — the incremental pay hikes they are normally due. And teachers, Republicans argue, often receive more pay through local bargaining agreements with school districts.
“I think that if you look at what teachers actually take home, we think … generally the compensation is a lot higher” than assumed, said Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, chief Senate budget writer.
So the Republican Senate budget funds the school-employee cost-of-living raises called for originally in I-732, with a 1.8 percent raise in the 2015-16 school year and 1.2 percent for the 2016-17 school year.
The GOP plan — which does not raise any taxes, but shifts money around to pay for the increases it does make — calls for rejecting the state-worker contracts as negotiated or arbitrated last year. Instead, Republicans set aside $96 million, enough money to give state workers a $1,000 pay raise for each of the next two years.
Republicans made the recommendation because they say it would give a bigger percentage increase to employees who earn less, according to Hill.
But unions would have to go back and renegotiate their contracts out of that set pool of money, so there’s no guarantee of that outcome.
When the Democratic House budget was released March 27, the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the teacher compensation policies didn’t go far enough.
Rich Wood, spokesman for WEA, said Friday he didn’t have a higher number in mind for what an optimal pay increase would be.
All of which makes Wood an even bigger critic of the Republican plan.
“There’s a huge difference, at least $368 million less in the Senate version” for teachers, he said.
That matters, according to Wood, because the state Supreme Court — which has ordered the Legislature to fully fund basic education in its decision known as McCleary — considers teacher pay increases as part of its decision.
“The McCleary decision said there’s nothing more basic than adequate pay,” said Wood.
Similarly, the Washington Federation of State Employees is not pleased with the GOP plan.
Spokesman Tim Welch said the Republican proposal disrespects state workers.
“It’s not too much to ask after seven years to get a modest pay increase,” he said.
Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, and chief budget writer in the House, says all of the pay increases are necessary to keep up with inflation. And if the state budget doesn’t keep pace with inflation, he argues, then the lowered spending power is either hurting workers or forcing local government to come up with more compensation.
“If you don’t actually keep … up with inflation, you’re shifting costs to someone else,” he said. “The costs are real.”