New governor must be realistic about funding education

The state can't count on a $1 billion infusion of revenue from economic growth, as outgoing-Gov. Chris Gregoire correctly points out.

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When politicians opt to not seek re-election or a higher office, it seems to be a freeing experience -- as in they are free to say things that are true but not politically popular.

That seems to be the case with Gov. Chris Gregoire as she urges her successor -- either Republican Rob McKenna or Democrat Jay Inslee -- to commit new revenue (as in more money) to education.

Gregoire's comment was in reaction to statements by McKenna and Inslee in which they said separately they believe the state can save money in some areas, such as through efficiencies and lower health-care costs, and shift more cash to education.

Gregoire said political leaders need to be realistic. Economic growth will be slow, she said.

"The idea that we're going to turn the economy around in a split second and get ($1 billion) -- there is absolutely nothing in terms of a forecast that would suggest that to be true," she said.

The governor is correct. She's seen firsthand the problems created by writing budgets based on ultra-optimistic expectations for economic growth. Two years ago the state budget was built on the assumption growth would be around 7 percent a year. It was quickly seen as unrealistic and that's when Gregoire started ordering cuts and the Legislature had to return to Olympia to tweak the budget.

Higher education has been hit particularly hard by these cuts. Since funding higher education is not mandated by the state constitution -- as it is for basic education -- lawmakers have cut state subsidies for public colleges and universities while allowing the institutions to raise tuition. The result is in-state university tuition has been rising by 14 percent a year.

The funding for basic education has been essentially flat, forcing local school districts to trim their budgets to adjust for the higher costs of operating schools.

Earlier this year the state Supreme Court ruled the state isn't meeting its constitutional obligation to fully fund basic public education. While the court is leaving the remedy for non-compliance to the Legislature -- as it should -- the justices will continue to monitor the situation.

The Legislature has created a task force to address the problem.

New revenue, as the governor suggests, is certainly an option to consider. However, we continue to believe lawmakers should first look at current taxes with an eye toward establishing dedicated funds specifically for basic education and higher education. This could be supplemented with new revenue sources if needed.

Over time this would serve to insulate education from the needs of other government services. It would establish a clear top priority for education -- particularly basic education.

Whether McKenna or Inslee is governor, it's clear the state cannot continue to budget with rose-colored glasses.

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