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Originally published Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Property-tax levy swap to fund education is the best bad idea we have

A property-tax levy swap to fund education is the best the best bad idea we have, writes guest columnist Ross Hunter.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Just great, tax me out of my home. Why does it always come down to home owners? Not... MORE
Mr. Hunter's plan would convert our local levies into state taxes. Right now the school... MORE
Charlie is exactly right. All this does is remove the taxpayer control that we now... MORE

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THE state Supreme Court ruled in early January in the McCleary decision that the Legislature was not meeting its constitutional requirement to “make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” Meeting the requirement will cost a total of around $2 billion per year.

These are the problems we have to wrestle with:

•Local school districts are effectively required to use money raised in local property-tax levies to fund what should be the state’s responsibility. Good examples are bus transportation for students to and from school, and the materials and supplies necessary to keep schools running.

•The education system we have today isn’t funded at an adequate level (let alone “amply”) to meet the education goals we’ve set for our young people. This includes identified needs such as all-day kindergarten, reducing large class sizes, and an increase of instructional time in middle and high school from 1,000 hours per year to 1,080.

•The level of compensation the state provides isn’t adequate to hire qualified teachers in urban districts where costs are higher, or classified staff or administrators anywhere, and local districts are again required to use unreliable local levies to pay the difference.

Economic growth will not be adequate to meet these obligations. There are a couple of stark alternatives for the Legislature to choose from in response: cut $2 billion a year from social services such as health care for low-income pregnant moms and their kids. We’ve already cut $10 billion from social services over the last few years. Or we could raise the sales tax by 2 points to over 11.5 percent in King County. Or we could do something smarter.

Former Republican state Sen. Joseph Zarelli and I arrived at a levy-swap concept independently. We differ substantially on the details of the proposal, and the details matter, but the core idea is the same.

Since districts are already paying for some of the educational services we’re required to fund, couldn’t we effectively swap who pays for things? If we raise state taxes and lower the local levies, the state winds up paying for things the districts used to pay for.

Here’s how it works:

First, we raise the state property tax by about $1.13 per thousand dollars of property value. This raises about $1 billion per year. The money is distributed to districts using our normal school-funding model, and they lower their local levy by the amount of new money they get. The idea is close to revenue neutral for the state, but some districts, mostly urban ones, will pay a bit more and some, mostly poorer rural districts, will pay a little less.

This may seem unfair, but today Bellevue can raise three times as much money per student in a local levy as Yakima can with a tax rate of about a third the cost. It’s already unfair, and the swap makes it little more even.

My proposal differs from Sen. Zarelli’s in a couple of important ways:

• The 1 percent annual growth limit is repealed for the state levy so that we can allow our revenue to grow as home values recover from the recession.

• Local levies are reset at $2,500 per student instead of the complex formula we now use. This makes the local levy system much easier for voters to understand.

There are issues with my proposal that need to be ironed out. This is the nature of complicated proposals, particularly those involving billions of dollars. In addition to the swap we will have to add at least $1 billion per year in additional revenue or cuts in other parts of the budget, but not doing the swap doubles the size of the tax increase.

Failing to adopt one of these strategies will provoke a constitutional crisis. As legislators, we all take an oath to uphold the constitution and laws of the state of Washington as our first order of business.

You may not like this idea, but like the undercover hostage-rescuing movie crew in “Argo,” this may be the “best bad idea we have.”

State Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.


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