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Originally published July 31, 2012 at 9:31 PM | Page modified July 31, 2012 at 9:50 PM

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McKenna's education plan calls for capping noneducation spending

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna offered up new details Tuesday of how he'd try to substantially boost state education spending without raising taxes.

Seattle Times political reporter

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Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna offered up new details Tuesday of how he'd try to substantially boost state education spending without raising taxes.

At its core, McKenna's plan assumes he can cap the growth of all noneducation state spending at no more than 6 percent per biennium, while state revenue would increase by 9 percent per biennium.

McKenna says his plan could free up $1.7 billion in new money for K-12 and higher education by 2013-15, fully meeting court-mandated spending for public schools.

By the 2019-21 biennium, he says, his proposal would provide an additional $4.7 billion for public schools and universities on top of the court-ordered improvements, reversing a decades long slide in state support for education.

"We think we have to make this choice if we are serious about fully funding our schools," McKenna said at a briefing with reporters in Seattle.

While the plan provides a guide to his aspirations as governor, McKenna's latest offering is not likely to settle the central question about whether his ideas are realistic. Democrats questioned how he'd achieve his cost savings — particularly in fast-growing areas like health care — to keep his education pledges.

State Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, a leading House budget writer, said much of the growth pressures on the state budget come from medical costs, including services for the poor and elderly.

"You would have to take thousands of seniors off of health care," Hunter said. "Everybody has a wish that this stuff wouldn't grow, but if wishes were horses, beggars would ride."

McKenna said he'd push to cut costs in health care for the poor by encouraging more clients to move to health-maintenance organizations and other types of managed care. Similarly, he said he'd intensify ongoing efforts to encourage state workers to switch to cheaper, consumer-directed health-care plans that offer lower premiums with higher deductibles.

His plan also expects savings by reducing the government workforce through attrition and using more competitive state contracting.

McKenna said he was basing his revenue-growth assumptions on projections by the state Office of Financial Management. "They're pretty conservative assumptions. They're not wild and crazy down there," he said.

The focus on education funding has been driven in part by a state Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that said the state isn't meeting its constitutional obligation to amply pay for basic public education.

He proposes a levy swap to make education funding more consistent as required by the court ruling earlier this year.

McKenna also said that by 2019, he wants 48 percent of the state general-fund budget spent on public schools. Currently, 44 percent of the budget is allocated to public education from kindergarten through the end of high school.

And he wants to reduce class sizes for kindergarten through third grade to 17 students per teacher and pay for all-day kindergarten by the 2017-2019 biennium. Currently, the state budgets for class sizes of 25 students per teacher.

McKenna, the two-term attorney general, has made education a central theme ever since he kicked off his campaign for governor last year.

His Democratic opponent in the governor's race, former Congressman Jay Inslee, has proposed a similar set of ideas for improving schools and colleges. But Inslee has not put the same kind of specific numbers on his budget goals.

Like McKenna, Inslee has ruled out general tax increases to pay for school improvements.

In a statement Tuesday, Inslee campaign spokeswoman Jaime Smith mocked McKenna's plan as phony: "The formula he uses wouldn't generate the funding he claims for years, all the while critically underfunding essential services for children. It's more empty promises from Rob McKenna."

But McKenna said such criticisms are coming from the party "responsible for driving down education" over the past few decades.

"They have no plan of their own. They just throw words out," McKenna said.

Staff reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this story, which also includes material from The Associated Press.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.comOn Twitter @Jim_Brunner.

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