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Originally published June 6, 2013 at 5:45 PM | Page modified June 7, 2013 at 7:43 AM

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Editorial: State lawmakers need to keep budget focused on education

In the waning days of an overtime session, Washington lawmakers need to prioritize education in a sustainable, gimmick-free budget

Seattle Times Editorial

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WITH just six days left in an overtime legislative session, supposedly confidential budget negotiations in Olympia went public on Wednesday, with House Democrats airing a new budget proposal at a news conference.

That contributed to a round of unhelpful public dueling. A day earlier, Gov. Jay Inslee had added to the overheated rhetoric with a news conference that makes one miss the artful negotiating skills of his predecessor.

But late Thursday afternoon, leaders of the Democratic majority in the House and the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition were back to the bargaining table in earnest. Why it took 130 days — a 105-day regular session and 25 days of a special session — is a frustrating mystery. Especially because their budgets for the 2013-15 biennium are remarkably similar.

The mission is clear: Prioritize education in a sustainable, gimmick-free budget.

That goal has two parts — revenue to fully fund education, and policy reforms to ensure the money is well spent.

On the revenue side, the House Democrats’ most recent proposal is pared down by nearly $800 million from an earlier version, but it pares back education funding rather than other government spending. Indeed, 76 percent of the reduction in spending from the earlier version came in education. Given the state’s woeful, systemic underfunding of education, and the state Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling mandating that be reversed, that is the wrong direction.

The House proposal seeks to close about $255 million in tax exemptions, and seeks more revenue through the estate and telecommunications taxes.

In response, the Senate on Thursday appeared to be moving toward the House position by setting aside its adamant aversion to new tax revenue. But there appear to be strings attached. In exchange for hundreds of millions in revenue, the Majority Coalition renewed a call for reforms to the workers’ compensation system and a bill to empower principals to pick staff for their schools.

In a $33 billion budget, the differences are relatively small. Reaching a deal before the June 11 end of the 30-day special session will require compromise on the revenue side from anti-tax absolutists in the Senate Republican caucus and sacrifice from social-service and labor advocates in the House Democratic caucus.

Despite the partisan political-speak in Olympia, both sides should recognize they will have to go home without getting everything on their wish list.

But they are all getting something. The Majority Coalition can claim a win on education reforms: the governor already has signed significant bills that prepare students for careers in science and engineering, improve academic outcomes and hold districts accountable — either meet performance standards or have funds withheld.

For Democrats, it is assured that the state will expand Medicaid, extending insurance to about 330,000 Washingtonians, and fund generous state employee contracts and Planned Parenthood’s family-planning services. All three were concessions by the Senate Majority Coalition.

If the Legislature is serious about meeting its duty to fully fund schools, its final budget should dedicate 45 percent of general funds to K-12; 9 percent to higher education; and include additional investments in early learning.

The clock is ticking.

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