Washington lawmakers say they’ve struck a tentative budget deal, but are keeping it secret until Thursday. Will the education-funding plan within the budget satisfy the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision?
OLYMPIA — A tentative state budget agreement Wednesday that includes a landmark education-funding plan was being kept under wraps — and prompting lots of questions.
Have lawmakers found a way to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s education-funding order known as the McCleary decision?
How would the plan affect the state’s school districts?
And how would it be paid for?
The announcement of a tentative deal on the 2017-19 state operating budget Wednesday eased worries that much of Washington’s government would shut down Saturday, when the current budget expires.
But legislative leaders wouldn’t discuss any details about the budget plan, expected to exceed $41 billion over two years, until rank-and-file lawmakers are briefed Thursday morning.
With budget negotiations since March taking place in secret, there will be little time to assess how the funding plan affects each of the state’s 295 school districts.
In separate news conferences Wednesday, Democratic House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan and GOP Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler each said they believed the tentative agreement would satisfy the McCleary court order.
Justices in that decision ruled that Washington was violating its own constitution by underfunding the state school system
Since 2014, the court has held the state in contempt for a lack of progress in satisfying the order. To this day, $100,000-a-day fines continue to accrue.
Neither Schoesler nor Sullivan would provide details of the agreement, such as the overall spending level or what kinds of tax changes the deal contains.
Sullivan said the deal will not include a referendum vote on the November election ballot, something Republicans had included in their initial McCleary plan.
Legislators must vote — and Gov. Jay Inslee must sign — a budget by the end of Friday to replace the $38.2 billion, two-year operating budget approved in 2015.
A partial government shut down would, among many other impacts, put new workers’ compensation claims on hold, suspend supervision for offenders in the community and stop meal service for 50,000 older residents.
It also would close state parks, where 11,000 people have camping or other overnight reservations during the Fourth of July week.
Yet, with a deal announced later than any other in recent memory, officials were still preparing for the worst.
Even with Wednesday’s announcement, “State agencies have been instructed by OFM to continue executing contingency plans for operations in the event the budgets are not enacted by midnight June 30,” according to the Office of Financial Management’s website.
Once the budget agreement becomes public, education officials and others will examine how legislators decided to attack the biggest, most complex part of McCleary.
That piece is determining how the state would fund teacher and other school-worker salaries as required by the court. School districts now use local property-tax levies to cover a chunk of those costs.
Talk in Olympia has focused on a scaled-back version of a GOP proposal to set a uniform state property-tax rate in plan known as a “levy swap.”
As originally written, that plan would hike levy rates in “property-rich” school districts like Seattle and Bellevue while lowering rates in districts elsewhere.
Steve Litzow, a former Republican state senator, predicted the Supreme Court may be satisfied with a modified tax swap, provided it ends a reliance on local property taxes to pay for public schools.
“Of course the Supreme Court is unpredictable,” Litzow added.
But some school districts have opposed a tax swap if they don’t see a boost in their combined state and local budgets.
“Everyone’s going to scream, ‘It’s not enough money,’ ” said Litzow, who worked on education issues in the Legislature.
The powerful state teachers union, meanwhile, will keep a close eye on what restrictions an agreement places on the use of local levies.
Republican lawmakers previously have pitched capping local levies and wanted districts to get approval from state education officials on how to spend that money.
“It’s about protecting local control in our schools and not allowing outside politicians or bureaucrats to micromanage our kids’ education,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, the union that represents most teachers.
Summer Stinson, of the education-advocacy group Washington’s Paramount Duty, said she’ll be watching to see how much lawmakers will dip into the state’s rainy day fund to pay for K-12 education.
“It’s hard to say without knowing how everything’s structured,” she said. “But it’d be a concern if it relies too heavily (on the rainy day fund) to actually fund schools out of that account.”
Stephen Nielsen, deputy superintendent for Seattle Public Schools, said he and his staff had asked lawmakers for a peek at what they’re considering as part of a final McCleary fix, as well as the 2017-19 budget.
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“We’re on the ground, and we know what’s there. Give us at least some clues because we can help you be successful,” Nielsen said Tuesday. “So far we haven’t seen that.”
The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) is expected to conduct a quick analysis of the education-funding deal.
But the office probably won’t be able to complete an in-depth analysis of an agreement before lawmakers vote on it, according to a spokesman for the office.
‘Drop dead’ Deadline
News of the deal came on a day considered to be the “drop-dead” deadline for a state budget agreement to be printed up, reviewed and passed out of the Legislature by Friday night.
Legislative staff and lawmakers will be up against the wire to identify and correct any small — or big — errors found in the budget bill, which is hundreds of pages long.
Meanwhile, some Democratic lawmakers Wednesday said they were frustrated about the lack of progress on a capital construction budget.
Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, said Republicans were refusing to negotiate on that budget — which is separate from the operating budget — until there was an agreement in a dispute over rural water use.
“We don’t have a pathway to negotiations,” said Tharinger, chair of the House Capital Budget Committee.
If a new capital budget isn’t approved by the end of Friday — or the existing budget reauthorized — some state workers could still face layoffs.
As many as 2,500 government workers could potentially be temporary laid off in that situation, according to the OFM.
Agencies with staff who could be affected include OSPI, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Washington state Historical Society, according to those agencies.
Schoesler, in Wednesday news conference, acknowledged the problem.
“We still have challenges to overcome on the capital budget,” he said.