House GOP puts education first in its spending plan
Republican Party leaders in the Washington state House refused to say what significant cuts they would make to the safety net, higher education or other programs to offset what they add to K-12.
OLYMPIA — House Republicans offered a "fund education first" budget Thursday, highlighting what they depicted as $580 million more for K-12 public schools than Gov. Chris Gregoire's spending plan would provide.
But their math was immediately called into question. And the minority party's leaders refused to say what significant cuts they would make to the safety net, higher education or other programs to offset what they add to K-12.
Many Democrats regard Gregoire's plan released in November as draconian. Gregoire herself has proposed a tax increase to "buy back" some of the cuts she proposed.
House Republicans don't want to wait.
"This is the wrong approach," Rep. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said. "Education should never be demoted to 'buyback' status. We should be funding education first, not using our students as leverage to drive a tax increase."
Dammeier is prime sponsor of the bill that would require lawmakers to fund schools before anything else.
Republicans said their budget plan would preserve the 180-day school year, retain all levy aid currently given to tax-poor school districts, and avoid a short delay of $340 million in state payments to school operations.
Gregoire's supplemental budget for 2012-13 had all three of those cuts or shifts.
Majority Democrats in the House said Thursday they agree with the GOP that it's a good idea to bring more clarity and "transparency" to paying for education in the operating budget.
But Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, said Dammeier's plan is unworkable.
"The real issue is, where does the money come from?" Haigh said.
House Ways and Means chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said the schools-first plan doesn't take into account other spending obligations also identified in the state constitution for courts, public safety and health.
Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, ranking member of House Ways and Means Committee, said Republicans can fund education first and still write an overall budget that protects public safety, the disabled and most vulnerable — including the mentally ill — without new taxes.
Alexander said he hasn't provided Hunter a specific budget document that does all that. But he has shared details of his plan and said he won't divulge them publicly unless talks with Hunter fall apart.
Asked for examples of things he would not pay for, Alexander gave one — the Disability Lifeline that helps people who are temporarily disabled and unable to work. But that program is already on Gregoire's chopping block.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said the fund-education-first idea is more symbolism than substance.
The governor's office dismissed it, too.
"We believe the state budget must hang together as a whole, not agency by agency or area by area. Increased spending in one area leads to more reductions in other areas," Gregoire's spokesman Cory Curtis said.
Gregoire's tax proposal includes a half-cent sales tax increase that would go to voters in spring, raising nearly $500 million a year if approved.
She would earmark more than $400 million of it to "buy back" some of her proposed budget cuts.