State Senate Democrats' budget proposes using surplus $$$ mostly for teachers, small property tax cut

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Senate Democrats unveiled a plan Monday that would use a projected increase in state revenues to expedite the timeline on fully funding teacher salaries as they work on the final component to bring Washington state into compliance with a state Supreme Court mandate on education.

The plan also looks to do a onetime property tax cut for homeowners.

Last week, lawmakers learned that state revenue projections look to increase by about $1.3 billion more than expected through 2021. The supplemental budget proposal plans to allocate much of that money toward education, including $972 million to fully fund teacher and school staff salaries by later this year. The budget, which makes several tweaks to the current $43.7 billion two-year state budget that was adopted last summer, also puts additional money into funding mental health, heath care, and higher education, among other areas.

"We're funding our public schools and addressing mental illness, we're living within our means and we're returning taxes to Washingtonians at a time when economic growth is extraordinarily good," Sen. Christine Rolfes, the key budget writer for Senate Democrats, said at a news conference.

The state has been in contempt of court since 2014 for lack of progress on satisfying a 2012 ruling that found that K-12 school funding was not adequate. In November, the court said that a plan passed last year satisfied their earlier ruling, but the teacher salary portion needed to be fully paid for this year.

The court has retained jurisdiction in the long-running case, and gave lawmakers this current legislative session to get the work done, ordering them to present a report by April 9 detailing the state's progress.

Under the plan passed by lawmakers during last year's session, the education funding plan relies largely on an 81-cent increase to the statewide property tax that started this year. The court took issue with the fact that under the plan, the salary component wasn't fully funded until September 2019.

The Senate plans to use the revenue increase to fully fund the salaries by September of this year. It also looks to tap into the so-called "rainy day fund" to cut the statewide property tax by 31 cents next year, dropping it from $2.70 per $1,000 of assessed value to $2.39. The rates would rise back up in 2020, though legislative leaders said they are looking into whether they can extend it. Use of the fund requires a 60 percent majority vote, which means Democrats — who hold a one-seat advantage — would need Republican help.

In a written statement Republican Sen. John Braun said the proposal "demonstrates a serious commitment toward responsible budgeting" but said he does have some concerns, including the size of the property tax cut, which he thinks should be higher.

"Not surprisingly we all have different opinions on things," he later told reporters. "Hopefully we can work toward ultimately a bipartisan deal out of the Senate."

House Democrats are set to unveil their supplemental budget proposal Tuesday, and both plans will receive public hearings in their respective committees the same day.

The current 60-day legislative session is scheduled to end March 8.