Locke offers new school levy law - although he isn't proposing any new taxes himself, would allow districts the authority to raise more moeny from local property owners

Joseph Turner; The News Tribune

Olympia, WA - 1/14/03 - Although he isn't proposing any new taxes himself, Gov. Gary Locke wants to give school districts the authority to raise more money from local property owners.

The governor said Monday that he will ask the Legislature to approve a law that would let school districts raise as much as 36 percent of their total annual budgets from property tax levies. That would amount to a 12 percent boost for most of the state's 296 districts.

Locke announced the proposal two hours before the House and Senate convened a scheduled 105-day session amid the pomp and circumstance that accompanies first-day activities.

Six new senators and 20 new representatives were sworn into office, including Reps. Joyce McDonald (R-Puyallup), Lois McMahan (R-Olalla), Dawn Morrell (D-Puyallup), Dennis Flannigan (D-Tacoma), Jan Shabro (R-Bonney Lake) and Skip Priest (R-Federal Way).

All six were elected in November.

The Senate also elected Sen. Shirley Winsley (R-Fircrest) to the office of president pro tempore, which means she will preside over the Senate when Lt. Gov. Brad Owen is away.

Winsley is the third consecutive Pierce County lawmaker to hold that post, following Sen. Rosa Franklin (D-Tacoma) and former Sen. Lorraine Wojahn, also a Tacoma Democrat.

Republicans, who hold a 25-24 majority in the Senate, also took the unusual step of appointing a Democrat to a committee chairmanship. Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-Potlatch), who often sides with the GOP, is now chairman of the Senate Economic Development Committee.

The governor said he held his first news conference of the session to "clarify" that he isn't asking the Legislature to repeal two voter-approved measures that guaranteed pay raises for school employees and boosted state funding for classrooms.

Locke said he merely wants to "suspend" Initiatives 732 and 728 for two years.

He said he wants to resume cost-of-living pay raises for teachers and ramp up funding for schools in the 2005-06 school year.

His timing was no accident.

Between 5,000 and 10,000 school employees - perhaps more, according to the state teachers union - are expected to rally in Olympia today to object to the governor's budget proposal. Locke said he won't be speaking at the rally because he wasn't invited.

Washington Education Association spokesman Rich Wood said the 76,000-member union has invited House Speaker Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) to address the protesting school workers.

While Locke's proposal to raise the so-called "levy lid" appeals to the teachers union, it wasn't well-received by two key lawmakers.

Reps. Dave Quall (D-Mount Vernon) and Gigi Talcott (R-Tacoma), the top Democrat and Republican on the House Education Committee, said such a change could lead to another mammoth lawsuit.

The state limits the amount of money school districts can raise from local levies.

For most of the state's school districts, the local levy can amount to no more than 24 percent of the school's total budget. But for 91 school districts, the percentage can be as high as 33.9 percent.

Tacoma's lid is 31.47 percent.

Quall said most school boards and superintendents also oppose raising the lid.

"I think it's a way (for Locke) to satisfy a part of the education community (the unions), by saying 'I'm going to freeze your pay raises, but I will provide some relief through raising the levy lid,'" Quall said.

"I'm not necessarily a fan of raising the lid."

The Legislature put a cap on local levies after the state was successfully sued in the mid-1970s for not spending enough money to support basic education. The fact that some school districts were relying on local property tax levies for more than half of their budgets indicated the state wasn't living up to its constitutional responsibility to pay for basic education, Talcott said.

If voters in some districts pass higher taxes while voters in other districts defeated their levies, it could create the same sort of disparity that existed when the Legislature was sued, Talcott and Quall said.

Locke disagreed.

"I don't think it makes it worse," the governor said.

Wood, the teachers union spokesman, said the governor's proposal is good, but it doesn't go far enough.

"We want to give school districts the option of raising more taxes from local property levies, but it is no substitute for adequate and stable funding for schools," Wood said.

Locke's proposed budget for public schools for the 2003-05 budget cycle would be $10.56 billion - about $285 million more than the state is spending in the current two-year budget period.

However, Wood said, that's still $610 million less than schools would get if the governor would fully fund some of the programs he is cutting.

Locke wants to put a two-year freeze on the extra money schools are getting because voters approved I-728 in November 2000. That extra funding now amounts to $220 per student.

Locke said he would resume the increases when the state recovers from its recession. That means the funding would rise to $300 per student in 2005-06, to $375 in 2006-07 and to $450 in 2007-08.

The initiative said the state should be paying $450 per student next year.

Joseph Turner: 253-597-8436


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