Two budgets will take some work

Legislature: Maybe they'll shorten school year

April 28, 2011 

  • GOOD NEWS ON BUDGET?

    Rep. Chris Reykdal and Rep. Sam Hunt say a transportation budget sent to Gov. Chris Gregoire for signing last week has some good elements for Thurston County.

    Reykdal pushed for and won a provision that lets the Washington State Patrol continue serving as primary responder to traffic accidents on Thurston County roads through June 2013. Sheriff John Snaza, an independent, and his Democratic predecessor have said that if the county took over that responsibility, it would require additional staff, which could have added $1 million in costs per year for the county.

    “The sheriff called and thanked me. He was the only one,” Reykdal said. He added that it was his own predecessor, former Rep. Brendan Williams, who alerted him that the original budget omitted this proviso. Reykdal said it is the last time he will push for it.

    Hunt said House Bill 1175, the transportation budget, also has money for the noise-reduction wall at Thompson Place, a housing development adjacent to Interstate 5 in the Lacey area. The project had been listed since lawmakers approved a package of projects nearly a decade ago, Hunt said. The $2.8 million noise-wall project received nearly $1 million in the last biennial transportation budget and is getting $1.86 million in the 2011-13 appropriation, assuming Gregoire signs HB 1175 into law.

House and Senate budget writers are at loggerheads on several items, and a bipartisan Senate proposal to cut public-school teachers' pay by 3 percent is among the thorniest problems.

House Democrats oppose the more than $250 million two-year cut. But Democratic Rep. Sam Hunt of Olympia said Wednesday that a reduction in the school year by three to five days might be a way to overcome the Senate-House difference, which includes a more than $56 million cut the House prefers to make in teachers’ longevity pay.

At the same time, Hunt and fellow 22nd district Democratic Rep. Chris Reykdal of Tumwater say they would draw a line over another Senate proposal to lay off lower-performing teachers first, instead of using seniority. Reykdal said the state’s evaluation process for teachers is still in a pilot form and shouldn’t be used in layoff decisions.

Hunt and Reykdal offered their comments in a 22nd Legislative District meeting with The Olympian’s editorial board Wednesday. Sen. Karen Fraser, the Thurston County Democrat who also serves the 22nd, was chairing a Senate Democratic Caucus debate and unable to attend.

“I think the way to do this, if we are going to do it, is to reduce the number of school days,” Hunt said. “You are not diluting or trying to spread more peanut butter … over the piece of bread. (But) I don’t like it any more than I like suspending the initiatives on class size or on teacher COLAs.’’

Reykdal, a freshman who has been out-front among Democratic lawmakers this year in trying to raise new revenue by closing a few tax breaks, said there is a fairness issue for teachers. While the Senate wants additional 3 percent pay cuts to match the 3 percent pay reductions Gov. Chris Gregoire has negotiated with many public employee unions, Reykdal said the general-government cuts are accompanied by an equivalent amount of extra time off for workers.

“So our unit cost didn’t change” per day worked, Reykdal said. In the Senate plan, he said teachers see it as a cut in pay with the same workload.

“I’m starting to feel like I’m in Wisconsin. We don’t do that in Washington,’’ Reykdal said.

Hunt does worry that a reduced school year could invite lawsuits – on grounds that the state is failing to meet its constitutional duty to pay for basic education – and a court injunction that halts the cut. But he said that would be easier and fairer than trying to force more than 290 school districts to reopen contracts with teachers. Some districts can absorb the costs without actually reducing pay and some cannot.

Hunt said lawmakers have few choices because voters have “turned over” control of revenue decisions to a minority in the Legislature by approving Initiative 1053 last fall. The measure requires a two-thirds vote to approve tax increases – unless a simple 50-percent-plus-one majority in the House and Senate vote to send the tax questions to voters.

Rep. Kathy Haigh, the Shelton Democrat who chairs the House Education Appropriations Committee, said in an interview Wednesday that she also thinks a shorter school year is the way to go and that the Senate proposal to reopen contracts is a non-starter in the House. Closing all schools the week of Thanksgiving could save $150 million and is fairer to poorer districts, Haigh said. That’s because districts like Mercer Island could avoid actually cutting salaries while poorer ones in rural areas could not.

But Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, a Bothell Democrat, said a shorter school year won’t work, because the Constitution requires full funding of basic education. “Basic education is 180 days, so we can’t do that,” McAuliffe said.

As for the reopened contracts, McAuliffe said cuts to education are so severe this year that most districts will have to reopen contracts anyway.

The special session that can run up to 30 days opened Tuesday so there is plenty of time for that argument to play out.

On other topics:

WORKERS' COMP - House Democrats won’t give in on workers’ compensation pensions as a way to settle differences and get the session done quickly. Hunt said there is a push by business groups that have won support of Republicans and some Democrats in the Senate, but said changes sought by Democratic Rep. Deborah Eddy will be tough for many to accept.

Reykdal said reforms already adopted this year save hundreds of millions of dollars in the worker compensation fund and that Washington ranks as only the 36th most costly state, despite having high benefits for injured workers.

Reykdal said it is unfair to look at a single element of the system in isolation and that Washington employees are unique in paying part of the premium (about 28 percent of the total, he said). If Washington lawmakers want to adopt a law letting the state give lump-sum payouts to people injured for life, which Oregon allows under certain situations, they should look at other things Oregon does – such as tying workers compensation premiums to the wage paid to workers, not just the hours worked, Reykdal said.

If that change in rate structure were made, Washington would not need to raise rates paid by businesses, Reykdal said.

Hunt would like the state to smooth out its rate structure and avoid cutting rates on business during times of good investment returns and raising them in lean times.

TEACHER RIFS – The House is not willing to give in to the Senate on targeting low-performance teachers in any reductions-in-force, or RIFs, needed by the funding cuts to public schools (such as reduced allotments for class-size reductions in the K-4 grades). Both Reykdal and Hunt said a performance-based evaluation system needs more time. Hunt did say school districts have been afraid to put teachers on provisional status out of fear of the teachers union.

BUDGET CUTS – The House must accept some of the Senate proposals that deal with sacrosanct issues like public-employee compensation. “The mechanics of that we will fight over that. But we are going to have to take some cuts,’’ Reykdal said. “Those are not irrational people that built that (budget) in the Senate. … We will meet them without violating everything we stand for.’’

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com

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