The Legislature is at loggerheads, with the Democrat-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate far apart in their proposed budgets. Neither party has a long-term plan for fully funding K-12 education, higher education, mental health, public employee contracts and teacher COLAs. Why? Because neither party has the will to implement systemic changes in our tax system. But, as our State Treasurer Jim McIntire states, “it is mathematically impossible to sustain any education system with our state’s shrinking tax base.”
To be fair, the Democrats are much more fiscally responsible in their proposal, with a capital gains tax on the wealthy generating about $500 million. To put that in perspective, that’s $10 a week for each student in our K-12 system. We are not going to meet our constitutional obligation to fund basic education with that minimal increase.
Both Democrats and Republicans propose to not lower class sizes in grades 4 through 12, violating Initiative 1351, which we passed just last fall. The Democrats would freeze college tuition at the same high levels as today, while increasing funding for the state need grant, so that it will be available for 83,000 low-income students. This still leaves out about 20,000 low-income students, who won’t get any assistance at all.
The Republicans have a more magical approach. Sprinkled throughout their proposal are “LEAN” savings, which have no detail and no rationale, just numbers to be saved by unspecified efficiencies. They refuse to consider new taxes on the wealthy, and they open up new tax loopholes for businesses. They cut tuition for UW, WSU and the regional universities, but not for community college students. They also actually cut funding for the State Need Grant (SNG) for higher education.
So we have the Democrats in the House supporting high tuition and incrementally increasing funding for low-income students, and Republicans in the Senate dropping tuition across the board while cutting funding for SNG.
There are elements of good in each proposal. It makes no sense to have tuition eat up 22 percent of the median family income, but that is exactly what UW tuition does. It makes no sense to leave low-income kids out of the equation for college because they can’t get tuition assistance. You could argue that the Republicans are talking to the middle class with college aspirations, while the Democrats are talking to striving low-income kids. That is just the divide which enables neither party to actually come up with the systemic funding for public higher education.
In reacting to the Republican proposal, State Representative Ross Hunter said, “My neighbors in Medina get their tuition reduced, which is nice, but not necessary.” The problem with this is that the median household income in Medina is greater than $160,000. But for the folks in Everett, where the median household income is $44,000, or for that matter, for families across our state of Washington, with a median household income of $57,000, decreasing tuition is a big deal. It opens up a door to advancement for kids who may not be poor enough to get any need grants, and yet are without enough income to enable them to go to college. Try paying $13,000 tuition on a $57,000 income.
Of course, as McIntire has emphasized, we can’t lower tuition and increase SNGs with our current tax system. We can’t fully fund K-12 education or early learning. We can’t take care of the mentally ill. We can’t meet our contractual obligations to public employees.
Instead, McIntire proposes we decrease the sales tax, eliminate the state property tax, reduce the business tax and institute a flat
5 percent income tax. If the Legislature implemented this, then we would have the resources to fund K-12 education, higher education and all the public services we take for granted. Our state treasurer has thrown down the gauntlet. Now the Legislature should take it up.
John Burbank is executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.