Levy cliff averted, real work can begin

A small group of demonstrators stands on the steps of the Temple of Justice and in view of the Legislative Building as they advocate for more state spending on education
A small group of demonstrators stands on the steps of the Temple of Justice and in view of the Legislative Building as they advocate for more state spending on education AP file, 2014

Washington lawmakers owned up to one school-funding reality last week. The Republican-controlled Senate wisely backed away from a so-called school “levy cliff” by agreeing to let school districts collect extra dollars from local levies for another year.

Gov. Jay Inslee should sign this compromise, Senate Bill 5023, into law. Quick action lets districts plan their budgets with more confidence — and fewer tentative teacher layoff notices — for the school year that begins in September.

Without the extension, school districts would have seen a cut next year of $358 million statewide in allowable local levy collections and state matching funds for tax-poor districts, according to a calculation by the Legislature’s nonpartisan research staff. The compromise keeps districts from going over the cliff by delaying the date for a lower levy lid until 2019.

Getting this levy cliff out of the way opens the door to dealing with the state’s bigger school funding problem head-on. The challenge is to come up with roughly $1.75 billion a year in new state funds to meet state Supreme Court orders to reduce the reliance on local-tax subsidies for basic education.

Sen. John Braun, the chief Republican budget author in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, had wanted to roll the “cliff” issue into the GOP’s larger two-year budget plan to replace most levies with a state property tax.

Others were more realistic about legislative inertia and urged passage of the higher levy limit bill. The Democrat-controlled House voted in January to approve a one-year extension of the higher rates.

Eventually Braun admitted the cliff issue was getting to be a distraction. In Braun’s own legislative district, the Centralia and Chehalis schools together stood to lose over $1 million in levy assistance funds.

The loss for North Thurston Public Schools was estimated at nearly $7.3 million, including $6 million in local levy collections and $1.2 million in state levy assistance.

Smaller amounts were at stake for neighboring districts: nearly $3.4 million for Olympia, nearly $2 million for Tumwater, $429,000 for Rochester, $372,000 for Tenino, more than $235,000 for Griffin and more than $1 million for Shelton.

There is still a major logjam at the statehouse over K-12 funding. The Senate and House have rival approaches for boosting state investments in public schools over the next two years, but neither has identified all of the new resources needed.

There was reason to feel a little encouraged by last week’s extension of the cliff to 2018. But after getting their legislative jalopy over the first hill, lawmakers need to get more serious.

That means being honest about ways to produce new revenue for schools without adding heavier property taxes for select communities, without slashing the social safety net and without using public employees’ pay as a hostage.

We’ll see how they do as soon as next week. That is when the Senate, and then the House, are expected to unveil their state operating budgets for 2017-19.