Teachers’ cost-of-living raise gets backing from governor

High court’s order changes his mind; support for idea strong in House but not in Senate

bshannon@theolympian.comJanuary 15, 2014 

Gov. Jay Inslee changed gears Tuesday, throwing full support to a teacher-backed campaign to give 1.3 percent cost-of-living increases to educators in 2014.

The proposal, which has been gaining traction in recent days, would end a five-year drought for K-12 teachers that began in the Great Recession.

Rep. Hans Dunshee, a Snohomish Democrat, is sponsoring the cost-of-living pay bill, which already has 51 co-sponsors, a majority in the House. Most are Democrats, but the list includes Republican Rep. Dick Muri of Steilacoom and two other GOP members.

“Teachers in my district — their pay is being cut,” Dunshee said Tuesday. “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 (since 2008). … This (bill) essentially holds them even.”

The measure would restore into law the voter-backed initiative language that provided automatic cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs. The Legislature has repeatedly suspended Initiative 732 since 2008.

The Washington Education Association and American Federation of Teachers have been circulating Dunshee’s bill, and they brought 115 volunteers to the Capitol on Monday to collect signatures of co-sponsors. WEA spokesman Rich Wood said it was a good sign when they got a majority in the 98-member House as co-sponsors in such a short period of time.

But the pay idea is getting a rocky reception in the Senate, where a coalition of 24 Republicans and two Democrats hold sway. Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said a supplemental budget year is not the time for “large-scale policy corrections” such as a pay adjustment.

The bill for the cost-of-living adjustment in 2014 is $57 million for K-12 employees and $4.7 million more for faculty at community and technical colleges, based on estimates last year from the state Office of Financial Management.

“A COLA is not a pay increase,” Muri said this week, calling it a hedge against inflation that is cutting into the 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.’’

WEA said other Republican sponsors were Reps. Larry Haler of Richland and Cary Condotta of East Wenatchee.

Inslee, a Democrat, said flatly in December that a supplemental budget year like 2014 was not the time to pay for a teacher cost-of-living raise.

But the state Supreme Court, following up on the 2012 McCleary school funding decision, issued an order last week that said the Legislature was still falling short of meeting its constitutional obligation to fully fund schools.

That new court order — faulting lawmakers even after they put almost $1 billion in new money into schools last year — changed Inslee’s mind.

“The court said it was troubled by a lack of progress in funding basic costs for schools as well as pay for educators and administrators, whom the justices rightly called the ‘heart of Washington’s education system,’” Inslee said in his State of the State address announcing his support for the teacher COLA.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville complained that Inslee didn’t say how he’d pay for the pay increase or the other educational improvements he is seeking. But some Democrats — as well as Muri — said a teacher cost-of-living increase would not necessarily require a revenue increase.

State budget director David Schumacher said that details on how the governor plans to raise new revenue from closing tax exemptions will come “early next week.”

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said the Supreme Court’s new order doesn’t automatically translate into House action on a cost-of-living increase. But he said it elevates spending on K-12 school improvements in the House’s priorities for the supplemental budget.

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.’’

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

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