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Originally published Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 3:57 PM

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State budget: Get ready for ugly in Olympia

A budget standoff in the Washington Legislature will serve no one. The House Democratic leaders should be open to more reforms, and the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition should consider tax increases.

Times editorial page editor

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Get ready for ugly in Olympia.

State lawmakers, regardless of party, agree on one thing: Substantially more money must be devoted to the state’s education system.

That is the right impulse, prodded in part by a recent state Supreme Court decision requiring the state to make good on its financial obligations to K-12 education. But the impulse should be expanded to a 3-to-23 approach that includes investments in early learning, which contribute to students’ later academic success, and to higher education, which has seen state funding cut in half in the last five years, resulting in soaring tuition for students.

Estimates put the additional education money needed in the next biennium at between $800 million and $1.4 billion. Lawmakers’ opinions of how to pay that bill in the face of another budget deficit drastically diverge along stereotypical party lines, setting up what many believe will be one of the most difficult negotiations in recent memory. Yes, that includes last year’s power grab by three rogue Democrats who joined with the Republican minority to take control of the Senate.

What our state needs now is more imagination from our lawmakers and less of their partisan muscle memory. Will lawmakers deliver?

Last year’s revolt lives on in a more formal way with the Senate Majority Coalition, including Democrats Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch. The coalition, which holds a one-vote majority, attempted to make bipartisan overtures to the Senate Democrats with offers of chairmanships or co-chairmanships with mixed results.

But the benefit, both last year and this, is that the legislative conversation necessarily has expanded beyond the Democratic Party and its traditional constituencies. For instance, education-reform bills never considered before have been heard and even passed, at least in the Senate. Their prospects in the firmly Democratic-controlled House are not so bright. In an interview, Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and his Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, were cool to most new reforms.

Sullivan says school administrators are struggling to implement education reforms enacted in recent years with limited resources. House Appropriations Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said Wednesday that closing the $1.3 billion budget deficit and meeting the Supreme Court’s requirements for education funding will be “hard to do without additional revenue.”

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Coalition’s Ways and Means Chairman Andy Hill, R-Kirkland, says his budget will fully fund education, buying specific reforms, with the goal of not extending expiring taxes or adding new ones: “The goal is to live within our means.”

Hill’s comment suggests cuts are possible to almost everything else. But, in a recent interview, neither he nor other leaders in the coalition would even entertain a conversation about what or how much to cut — at least not yet. The Senate budget is expected to be announced this week, with the House’s to follow. Gov. Jay Inslee is expected soon to release his own budget priorities, including recommendations to repeal some tax exemptions.

Raising taxes became easier with another state Supreme Court decision that threw out the voter-approved requirement that any tax increases require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature or a simple majority of the vote of the people. Easier, technically, but not so much politically, since voters in 44 of the state’s 49 legislative districts had expressed their abiding distrust of Olympia by voting for the two-thirds rule again in November. Lawmakers should feel that no-confidence vote keenly and try to get to two-thirds vote for tax increases or put together a credible package voters could embrace.

A standoff will serve no one. Democratic leaders should be open to reforms. The Senate Majority Coalition’s line against any new tax increases is shortsighted. The Republican-dominated coalition should be ready to deal.

Lawmakers should scrub all of the state’s tax exemptions to see what can be eliminated and, yes, other types of tax increases should be considered. However, they must not be divorced from further reforms in education and other parts of state government.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is kriley@seattletimes.comOn Twitter @kriley


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