Senate committee releases budget proposal

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Rebecca White/Columbia Basin Herald Sen. John Braun. R-Centralia, (center) and leaders of the Republican Senate Caucus gather during a press conference to release the 2017 operating budget.

The Senate released its operating budget for the 2017-19 biennium with an increased spending of $1.8 billion on education and significant changes in early learning, family services and health care.

Much of the Republicans’ budget plan, half of which is comprised of education spending, is based on the levy equalization and per-pupil funding bill which was voted out of the Senate on Feb 1. The original bill attempted to fulfill the state Supreme Court’s requirement of fully funding education by taking over local school districts’ property tax levies and equalizing them across the state. The budget released today is consistent with most of the language of the original bill, but lowers the levy tax rate from $1.80 per $1,000 of assessed value to $1.55.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said the Republican budget proposal will not end up raising taxes. He felt all the budget proposals put forward so far would have some impact on tax rates in the Puget Sound area.

“This is not a huge tax increase for the city of Seattle,” Braun said. “Frankly, at least we’re getting out there and proposing a way to pay for K-12. All the other ideas shared by the other side are simply ideas and they have been unwilling to take a vote.”

Inslee said the levy equalization portion of the plan, which will increase levy dollars collected from property taxes in areas of Washington with high property value, was unfair. Under the Republican plan, some high-property value areas such as King County would have an increase in property taxes gathered through levies and in rural areas such as parts of Lincoln and Adams counties with lower property values, levies would decrease.

“This vision that everybody in King County is rich is not the reality,” Inslee said. “I would respect an effort to have a fair tax system that is more progressive in the sense that is had a higher burden for those who make more money. It substitutes geography for demographics economics.”

The plan takes measures to reduce spending by repealing two initiatives, a 2014 initiative which lowered class sizes and another passed in 2000 which gave teachers in schools cost-of-living adjustments. The bill report estimated that over the next four years, phasing out the initiatives could reduce spending by $1.9 billion.

The Senate also rejected the state employee salary plan the governor’s office negotiated during the interim, keeping only the Department of Corrections’ and State Patrol’s contracts in their original form and proposing their own plan for all other state salaries.

“I’m not saying we don’t value our state employees,” Braun said. “We just think that’s a decision that should be done at the Legislature, in the legislative process. There is a number of issues.”

Inslee said the costs of the contracts his office negotiated are necessary to retain qualified professionals and keep them from leaving for higher-paying jobs in the private sector. He used Western State Hospital and Child Protective Services as examples of government agencies that had high turnover because of low pay and difficulty attracting qualified employees.

“We need to have some reasonable practices of maintaining competitive salaries,” Inslee said. “State employees are still behind the curve; they still have not caught up with pre-recession levels of compensation.”

The plan also makes changes to higher education funding, increasing enrollment and allowing public universities to raise tuition.

Public research institutions such as Washington State University and the University of Washington will increase enrollment by 250 students in the 2017 school year and an additional 500 students in the 2018 school year. Smaller public universities such as Central Washington University and Eastern Washington University will have an increase of enrollment of 100 students in the 2017 school year and 200 students in the 2018 school year. The budget stipulates that 70 percent of those new enrollment slots must be filled by students majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The budget will also cut or reduce funding for some programs in early learning and child care, home healthcare training and other human services.

Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, said locally, the school districts will most likely see the largest impacts from this budget proposal. “I think we put out a budget that people, at least in my district, will appreciate,” Warnick said.

The operating budget is one of three parts of the legislatures overall budget. The transportation budget was released Monday and Warnick, who is involved in the capital budget, said it should be released early next week.

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