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Originally published Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 4:04 PM

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Editorial: Time for Olympia to do the hard work on the state budget

The state Legislature should pass a do-no-harm budget and then get started immediately preparing for a 2015-17 budget that increases funding for education.

Seattle Times Editorial

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LAST year’s double-overtime state legislative session was so bruising that Sen. Jim Hargrove, the Senate Democrats’ budget lead, joked recently that he will “still flinch” when he sees his House budget-writing counterparts.

The fight produced a bipartisan, balanced two-year budget that added about $1 billion to education without significant tax increases and without slashing human services.

The Legislature’s task this session was not to reverse those gains, in anticipation of the heavy-lifting required in the 2015 session. That’s when the Legislature will need to make more substantial progress — measured in money and in education reforms — toward meeting the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, which mandates the state meet its paramount duty to fully fund education.

The budget chairs, Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, and Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, have largely succeeded. The House’s and Senate’s 2014 supplemental budgets, released last week, are remarkably similar. Both propose modest, smart investments, particularly in the public mental-health system.

A top budget priority is for the Legislature to approve a change in law crucial to the state retaining its waiver under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Pressured by the state teachers’ union, a majority in the state Senate voted it down. They were willing to jeopardize around $40 million for programs to help low-income students. Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee, coming late to the issue, began working with lawmakers on a solution.

The Senate budget makes a mistake by robbing from and closing the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, which was set up in 2005 with money from the tobacco settlement. It has proved a vital public-private fund for research.

Meanwhile, the Democratic-controlled House proposes to eliminate about $100 million in tax preferences, intending the recovered revenues to be an early down payment on education investment in 2015. But the plan is not in the core supplemental budget, tipping the House’s hand that the proposals are not politically viable, especially with just two weeks left this session.

Once the session ends, the Legislature needs to have a frank reassessment of the state tax structure — including unproductive tax exemptions — before 2015.

Existing taxes aren’t now enough for the state to fully fund the McCleary decision. A new education financing plan must not impede the slow economic recovery, or do harm to higher education or the core human-services safety net. A big task.

A plan to address McCleary must put new revenue side-by-side with continued education reforms, such as proposals to empower school principals to pick their teaching staff and to tie teacher pay to performance.

The Legislature has less than two weeks to put a do-no-harm budget to bed. The harder work lies ahead.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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