The Washington Education Association is withholding support from Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed half-cent increase in the sales tax to help schools and health care programs. Instead its leaders want lawmakers to look for other tax options that don’t hit the low-income taxpayer so hard.
Mary Lindquist, president for the 82,000-member union that includes public school teachers, laid out the WEA position Wednesday during a meeting with The Olympian’s editorial board.
State lawmakers kicked off a 30-day special session Monday, and Gregoire is asking the Legislature to identify $2 billion in new cuts. The lame duck Democrat also wants roughly $750 million in new revenue (about $500 million from the sales tax) that would buy back some of those cuts, if voters approve a tax referendum.
Lindquist did not specify which tax breaks for businesses she would like closed in lieu of a sales tax.
She said that cuts over the past three years already total $2.5 billion for schools.
On Monday, the WEA brought about 600 members to join protests at the Legislature against further cuts. Among cuts being discussed are less levy aid to tax-poor districts, more crowding in classrooms and a shorter school year that might be unconstitutional.
The WEA’s position may muddy the political waters at the Legislature, where many Occupy the Capitol protesters this week also were calling for taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Voters strongly rejected an income tax just one year ago, and a revival of that concept could take years to get past legal challenges – even if majority Democrats found the votes to put it on the ballot.
Budget writers such as Democratic Sen. Ed Murray say any revenue package needs enough votes in the Senate and House to go onto the statewide ballot in March or April.
In the House, Ways and Means Committee chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said the sales tax is controversial and that he expects many discussions about the fairness of a tax package.
Minority Republicans are flatly opposed to raising new revenue – at least until reforms are made.
The WEA’s statements about past budget cuts are also open to debate.
Liv Finne of the right-of-center Washington Policy Center said this week that education funding has actually gone up to $13.78 billion for the 2011-13 budget cycle in Washington. She cited the fiscal.wa.gov Web site that shows $789 million more is allocated than in the preceding biennium.
But the same state budget site says $428 million of the increase Finne cites is due solely to increases in teacher pension costs.
Finne cites other data from the state’s budget site to show that per-pupil spending – including local voter-approved levies, federal and state outlays –has grown to $10,326 per pupil in school year 2010-11. That is up from $10,001 a year before and still higher than the $10,093 of 2008-09. Much of the increase is linked to voter-approved funding.
The WEA says Finne’s claims are misleading because the state-only share of contributions is still lower than in 2008 and could drop again if more cuts are made.
Ultimately, however the numbers get parsed, the teachers union may get help from outside the Legislature. The state Supreme Court is working on a decision in a union lawsuit that says the state is failing to live up to its “paramount duty” in the state Constitution – to amply fund basic education.
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 firstname.lastname@example.org www.theolympian.com/politicsblog