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Originally published Monday, February 20, 2012 at 4:01 PM

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Another misguided and costly attempt to take over K-12 health benefits

Some lawmakers in Olympia claim state takeover of K-12 employee health benefits would save money. But it would cost millions, writes a Bellevue teacher.

Special to The Times

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THE state Supreme Court has handed Washington lawmakers another key issue to deal with on top of major budget problems, the need for jobs and other important challenges: chronic underfunding of K-12 education.

With so much on its plate and resources stretched thin, the last thing the Legislature should do is grow the bureaucracy, increase the taxpayers' burden unnecessarily and wipe out competition that helps hold costs down. But that's what Senate Bill 6442 would do.

The claim is that this state takeover of K-12 employee health benefits from our current system, in which districts and their unions select from a limited number of private plans, would save money. But it would cost millions.

A state takeover has been studied five times (at significant taxpayer cost) in the last 20-plus years. Only once, in a flawed study contracted by the state auditor to an out-of-state firm, were any supposed savings reported, and then only by leaving out costs such as administrative overhead and the need for a reserve fund.

When takeover efforts stalled in the 2011 session, the Legislature ordered the latest study by the state Health Care Authority. Once again, no legitimate savings were identified. Instead, the study said it would cost taxpayers $45 million and require 38 more state employees to get the new program started. Experience reinforces the likelihood that the cost would be far more than the state study suggests.

This state takeover would also impose $25 million a year in higher fees on K-12 employees, and shift all future cost risks to school districts.

It would also wipe out health-care coverage entirely for thousands of part-time employees. Some legislators complain about a big national retail store chain not providing health benefits to employees so the government will cover them through Medicaid. Yet, some of these same legislators want to make this the official state policy for part-time K-12 employees.

The current K-12 employee health-benefit system costs taxpayers less and provides comparable benefits and far better service than the program for state employees. The state pays $768 a month per full-time-equivalent K-12 employee and $850 per full-time state employee. And while half-time state employees still get the full $850 a month, half-time K-12 employees get $384.

What a deal: costs more, grows government bureaucracy and takes away competition. Name one program state government has taken over that is actually less expensive and more efficient — you can't. It never happens. The idea that a state takeover is going to save money is a fantasy.

So what's really at work here? One of those "inside games" that taxpayers aren't supposed to be told about or understand. Year after year, legislators come up with creative ways to add to the state bureaucracy and "book savings," knowing full well that those savings are a fantasy that never materializes. They "balance the budget" on paper and if times are good and taxes roll in at ever-higher levels, the problem never shows up.

Until the state economy hits a downturn, as we are experiencing right now.

Then all these problems legislators have kicked forward by not paying as they go are staring them in the face. Their answer? Just as with the underfunding of K-12 education, they kick it down the road again with more "creative" budget gimmicks.

Taxpayers need to be aware of these sleight-of-hand tricks.

Any money the Legislature thinks it has for a state takeover of K-12 health benefits should instead go to fund basic education. Neglecting that, while imposing higher costs on taxpayers to pad the state bureaucracy, is an astoundingly bad idea. And, as the Supreme Court reminded the Legislature yet again, it is shirking the state's paramount responsibility of financing its common schools.

Danielle Ottesen is a teacher in the Bellevue School District.

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