Inslee budget plan bites a bullet

Washington legislators dodged one bullet this year when the state Supreme Court said the Legislature’s budget plan could amply fund the state’s K-12 public schools.

But that didn’t completely end the legal saga over the state’s decades-long failure to fulfill its constitutional obligation to fully fund local schools. The Legislature adopted a bipartisan funding plan this year that misses its own deadline for full funding of basic education costs including K-12 salaries by a year. That was supposed to happen in 2018.

To his credit, Gov. Jay Inslee is proposing a supplemental budget that bites the bullet that the politically divided Legislature was unable to do in early summer.

His supplemental budget proposal, outlined Thursday at the Capitol and explained more fully in a meeting with The Olympian Editorial Board, is a good starting point.

In a nutshell, the Inslee approach meets the goal by taking hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s Rainy Day Fund. And to keep the state’s predicted revenues and expenditures in balance the next four years, the Democrat is proposing a new — and as-yet undisclosed — price or tax on carbon pollutants from fossil fuels.

Republicans may balk at the outlays from reserves, but they need to take the proposal more seriously than they took Inslee’s full-funding plan for salaries he proposed a year ago. If they want a balanced budget over multiple years they’ll need new revenues or need to offer cuts they previously avoided.

Under Inslee’s plan, the state would invest another $950 million of state money into K-12 education.

Some funds go beyond basic education but are needed. State schools chief Chris Reykdal noted $17 million is to hire more counselors in the pivotal middle grades and other investments to expand career and technical education options for students in middle schools who need to know they won’t be failures if they don’t get four-year college degrees.

Inslee also is seeking to expand mental health facilities, boost staffing at state hospitals and cover shortfalls for some health care costs. It would make sense for our lawmakers to also prepare an emergency patch in the event the dysfunctional U.S. Senate and House fail to continue full funding of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as Apple Health in our state.

Republicans balked at the faster school salary-funding scheme earlier this year when they held a one-vote majority in the Senate and Braun was the top budget writer. But the November elections shifted an east King County seat to Democrats, giving them narrow majorities in both the state Senate and House. Along with Inslee they have a freer hand in shaping what still may need to be a bipartisan budget.

Early indications are that Sen. John Braun, the Centralia Republican and budget writer in the Ways and Means Committee, is open to disussions.

What is important to remember is that Inslee is offering the first or rough draft for how lawmakers can fully fund teacher salaries and keep their word to the Supreme Court in the historic McCleary case, which the high court first decided in 2012. The House and Senate will lay out their budgets after the short 60-day legislative session begins next month.

Critics may note the Legislature has already scheduled more than $10 billion in new K-12 investments over multiple budget cycles through 2021. And details of Inslee’s proposal still need close scrutiny to ensure that districts like Olympia — which faced a squeeze under the current GOP-shaped funding plan that doesn’t account sufficiently for the district’s more experienced and higher paid staff mix — to ensure local schools are not shortchanged.

The key to solving the school funding solution is for Republicans to keep an open mind about putting a price on carbon emissions, which are linked by a vast majority of climate scientists to global warming and ocean acidification. Or they should change their tune about taxing capital gains.

If lawmakes do not advance a smart carbon policy that attracts bipartisan support, there is a strong chance Northwest tribes and environmentalist-backed voters will get one passed in November using the initiative process. Republicans should expect a serious environmentalist-led backlash against President Trump’s reckless attacks on environmental protections.

The political tide is turning against the GOP’s Trumpism, and its members need to show voters in swing districts they care about more than tax cuts — especially in our relatively low-tax state. Lawmakers need to ensure we have adequately funded schools, a capital budget that invests in our economy, good higher education programs and environmental policies based in reality.

It’s time to get cracking.