Gov. Jay Inslee gave a boost Tuesday to a teacher-backed proposal to secure a 1.3 percent cost-of-living increase for educators in 2014, an effort that was already gaining steam in the Washington House.
Inslee, a Democrat, said in his State of the State speech that after the state Supreme Court’s order issued last week on school funding, he is now proposing a COLA for teachers as part of a $200 million increase in K-12 school funding. He indicated closure of unspecified tax breaks could raise new money.
Rep. Hans Dunshee, a Snohomish Democrat, already had signatures from 49 House members – including Republicans such as Rep. Dick Muri of Steilacoom – in favor of a bill that reinstates the COLA in state law for 2014.
In a bipartisan move last year, lawmakers in the Republican-steered Senate and Democrat-controlled House agreed to suspend the voter-approved initiative that required yearly COLAs for K-12 teachers and some community college employees.
Cost to add the adjustment is estimated at $57 million for K-12 and $4.7 million more for community and technical colleges, based on estimates from Inslee’s Office of Financial Management in December.
“Teachers in my district – their pay is being cut,” Dunshee said before the governor’s speech. “That essentially is what is going on when you don’t have a COLA. It’s 15 to 20 percent (in buying power) they have lost. It’s absolutely fundamental that the people doing the teaching are not being disrespected by having their pay cut. … This essentially holds them even.”
At least three Republicans had signed on so far, according to the Washington Education Association, which had been circulating Dunshee’s bill for signatures. Among them were Muri, Larry Haler of Tri-Cities and Cary Condotta of East Wenatchee.
“A COLA is not a pay increase,” Muri said earlier in the week, calling it a hedge against inflation that is cutting into the real pay of teachers. "I might disagree with the WEA on a lot of issues but we should fund pay first – at least the COLA. … At least keep their pay equal to what they had in the past.’’
The pay idea was on its way to a rocky reception in the Senate, where a coalition of 24 Republicans and two Democrats hold sway. Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said Monday a COLA was not in the cards.
"In a short supplemental session we are not looking at those kind of revenue enhancements,'' Tom told reporters. He said, however, that the Senate was interested in reforms that could include differential pay – in effect, increases – for some teaching specialties.
“But really again, the basis is we're going to focus on what is in the best interest of the kids, how can we make sure these kids are getting a world class education system and (putting) the focus on excellence in learning in the 21st century.''
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said the court’s latest order in the school funding case – popularly known as McCleary – hasn’t made action on a COLA into a reality, but it did move up spending on K-12 school improvements in the supplemental budget’s priorities.
Sullivan said a pay adjustment “is only one potential response to the court on McCleary. This is one area where the court said we were deficient. There were others.’’
Sullivan fell short of promising either a committee hearing or floor vote on the COLA, but he said Dunshee’s proposal is the right vehicle for addressing the issue. “I think passing that bill - provided this is part of our response – makes more sense than putting it in the budget,’’ he said. He added that the court ruling shows the House approach to funding K-12 at higher levels than the Senate agreed to last year “was an appropriate response.’’
We'll have more for Wednesday's papers.