The governor announced the plan Thursday during the unveiling of his supplemental budget proposal, which makes some tweaks to the current $43.7 billion, two-year state budget that was adopted earlier this year.
Gov. Jay Inslee wants to pull $950 million from budget reserves to satisfy a state Supreme Court deadline for Washington to end chronic and unconstitutional underfunding of public education.
As part of a 2018 supplemental budget proposal announced Thursday, Inslee asked the Legislature to dip into the reserves to hasten a state investment in salaries for teachers and other public-school employees.
To backfill the withdrawal, Inslee, a Democrat, said he’ll once again propose a tax on carbon pollution, with details to come next month.
Inslee said his plan would finally bring the state into compliance with the 2012 school-funding order known as the McCleary decision. The state has been in contempt of that order since 2014, accruing a fine of $100,000 a day.
In November, the state Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers had succeeded in coming up with a plan to adequately fund K-12 schools — but had failed to put money in place to do so before a September 2018 deadline.
“Our students and teachers are counting on us to deliver this year and we can do this now,” Inslee said at a news conference in Olympia.
His proposal was praised by some education leaders.
“This budget continues to demonstrate Governor Inslee’s leadership in funding public education for our state’s 1 million students,” Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association, said in a statement.
But the plan drew criticism from some Republican legislative leaders.
State Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said he was concerned with the carbon tax as well as the drawing down of budget reserves.
“It’s important that we show discipline by keeping a sizable balance in the ‘Rainy Day Fund’ and budget reserve so we can weather an unexpected economic downturn or state revenue drop,” Braun said in a statement.
The state’s hot economy has made budget additions somewhat easier for Inslee and lawmakers. Even after tapping reserves, Inslee’s budget proposal would leave $760 million in unrestricted cash reserves, as well as an additional $1.4 billion in the state’s Rainy Day Fund.
In signaling a push for a carbon tax, Inslee will renew one of his signature fights for measures to combat global warming that scientists have concluded is caused by human activity.
The governor declined to offer details of his carbon proposal Thursday, saying it would be rolled out in January. Similar proposals have stalled in the Legislature in the past, and voters rejected a controversial carbon-tax initiative in 2016.
But Democrats next year will be under pressure from environmentalists and other constituencies to wield their newly won state Senate majority. After Democrat Manka Dhingra’s win in the hard-fought 45th Legislative District state Senate race in November, the party will control both houses of the Legislature as well as the governor’s office.
“We don’t go into a new year planning for failure,” Inslee said. “This is very achievable. It is very necessary.”
Tom Ahearne, lead attorney for plaintiffs in the McCleary lawsuit, wasn’t optimistic lawmakers will come through on full funding of schools.
“The primary determinant is not what the constitution requires, it’s not what the court ordered,” he said Thursday. “It’s going to be what the legislators think will get them re-elected in November.”
All the state House seats and half the Senate are on the ballot next year.
Overall, Inslee’s supplemental budget blueprint would make modest adjustments to the $43.7 billion, two-year budget adopted earlier this year after a record-long legislative session.
In addition to the new money for schools, Inslee proposed more than $100 million in added spending on the state’s mental-health system. That includes money for hiring more staff at Western State Hospital, the Lakewood psychiatric hospital that has been threatened with a loss of federal funding due to patient and staff safety problems.
Inslee’s budget also adds $162 million to cover shortfalls in the state’s Medicaid program, which provides health care for poor people.
Most of that money was needed because of “unrealistic” savings assumptions made by state agencies and the Legislature last year, according to a budget summary from the governor’s office.
Inslee’s operating budget proposal also would add more than $3 million for efforts to save Puget Sound’s southern resident killer whales, which are threatened by declining salmon runs and noisy ship traffic.
Lawmakers return to the Capitol next month, when the House and Senate will each present their own supplemental budget proposals during the 60-day legislative session that is scheduled to end mid-March.