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Friday, February 06, 2004 - Page updated at 12:33 A.M.

Cool response for Locke's education plan

By Andrew Garber
Seattle Times staff reporter

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OLYMPIA — Gov. Gary Locke rolled out a $1 billion tax package for education yesterday and legislative leaders seemed eager to get out of the way.

Locke, with the League of Education Voters, is proposing a penny increase in the sales tax to pay for programs from preschool to higher education.

The governor is talking to lawmakers in both chambers about whether the Legislature should put the measure on the ballot as a referendum. House and Senate leaders yesterday said they don't expect to bring it up for a vote.

"If we threw that issue on the Senate floor, I'd be surprised if we got 10 votes, and half the Senate would be busy somewhere else," said Senate Education Chairman Stephen Johnson, R-Kent.

Lisa Macfarlane, League of Education Voters president, said her group would get moving on an initiative if the Legislature doesn't take action.

"We're not going to sit around and wait for the end of the session," said Macfarlane, adding she's confident the group can raise the money and signatures needed to get a measure on the November ballot.

The proposal got some support from lawmakers, including House Appropriations Chairwoman Helen Sommers. "There's no way we're going to be able to fund our responsibilities in K-12 and higher education without a funding proposal like this one," said Sommers, D-Seattle.

But many legislators rapidly distanced themselves.

Republican lawmakers in both chambers panned the plan, saying the state's limping economy couldn't handle such a large tax increase.

"At a time when our major challenge is to get people back to work, raising taxes is exactly the opposite direction we should be going," said Rep. Barry Sehlin of Oak Harbor, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee.
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The tax package was greeted with hesitation even among some Democrats. "I'm quite torn," said House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam. Kessler said that while she supports increased funding for education, she had concerns about the sales-tax increase and details of how the money would be spent.

Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park, had similar concerns. "We need to do something, but this isn't the way," said Fairley, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee.

The tax package would raise about $1 billion a year for education. Of that amount, $100 million would go to preschool programs. About $400 million would go to the state's colleges and universities, mostly to increase enrollment.

An additional $500 million would go to public schools, including $215 million annually to fully fund Initiative 728. That initiative, approved by 72 percent of voters in 2000, allocated surplus tax dollars to reduce class sizes, among other things.

When the state's surplus disappeared with the recession, lawmakers cut the amount schools were supposed to receive in the current two-year budget.

League officials estimate the tax package would cost a family earning $50,000 to $60,000 a year an additional $180 annually in taxes.

Locke yesterday promoted the ballot measure saying, "This a choice for the voters. Do we want simply to fund basic education services or do we want to provide our children a high-quality education?"

The lame-duck governor has vowed to take the lead in promoting the ballot measure. Yet the effort ran into trouble before yesterday's announcement, with the Washington Education Association (WEA) saying it doesn't support the measure as it's drafted.

The teachers union supports increased funding for education but is concerned because the league's proposal doesn't address teachers' salaries. Plus, the union questions going for such a large sales-tax increase.

"We hate to be the one to throw cold water on it," WEA President Charles Hasse said yesterday, but "we continue to have serious questions about the viability of the strategy they are proposing."

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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