News

From classroom to hearing room

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

Legislators are looking at a big gap in funding the state’s budget, and education is in that gap.

Local representatives say while it is too early to know which way the budget will land, political winds are already rustling, and some of them might be a cold draft.

What is known is that there is between a $1.6 billion and $2.2 billion gap in the budget. A recent decision by the state Supreme Court to nix estate taxes cuts around $400 million for the revenue side of the ledger. That and some smaller revenue losses are what add up to the higher deficit.

Since the Legislature convened the second week of January, state Rep. Skip Priest (R-Federal Way and 30th District) and his colleagues on a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee have been working on how to fund both higher education and K-12. The plan is to determine what to spend money on and spend it wisely, he said.

One way is seeing how school districts are funded and balancing the dollars sent to each. It becomes political because schools benefitting from the current funding structures are not going to want to give up some of the money they have been getting.

In higher education –– community colleges and universities –– the challenge is to keep both access and the goals of higher education. Last year, several four-year institutions, including the University of Washington and Washington State University, closed enrollment to transfer students from community colleges. This year, the CCs are proposing they be allowed to teach and confer certain four-year degrees to make up for some of the squeeze. Meanwhile, branch campuses want permission to offer freshman-level collegiate courses –– the bailiwick of community colleges.

Lorenzo Ortiz, a student at Green River Community College, spent a day at the state capital at the end of January asking politicians to keep worker retraining dollars flowing to community colleges and increase them if possible. A single father with two children, Ortiz said he is barely getting by after he pays for tuition, books and gasoline for driving to the campus.

Everyone in Olympia is awaiting an economic forecast report next month. Gov. Christine Gregoire has said she won’t release her budget until after the forecast is released. Nobody sounds terribly optimistic about what it will say.

Rep. Mark Miloscia of Federal Way (D-30th District) thinks the good news was removed the moment the Supreme Court ruled to reduce estate taxes because the federal code the state followed had changed. The state, the high court ruled, had not followed Uncle Sam’s lead.

Along with the pressure of figuring out where revenue will come from and how to spend it, several school districts in the state –– including Federal Way –– filed a lawsuit against the Legislature last fall. The districts contend the state constitution and 20-year-old court rulings make it clear who is supposed to pay for basic education: The state.

The districts’ lawsuit is focused on special education, which the court has decreed is part of basic education. Districts have covered the bill on part of that cost for years via levies.

Miloscia said the school districts’ lawsuit is on the minds of legislators as the budget is discussed. “You hear lawyers whispering in the background a lot,” he said.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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