Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna said Tuesday in Longview that the state's takeout on property taxes should be raised to replace local school levies and to meet the state's constitutional mandate to fund education.
In an interview with The Daily News' editorial board, McKenna said the increase, which he called a school levy swap, would shift the burden to pay for education away from local school districts and to the entire state, where he said it belongs. The tax increase would essentially replace portions of local school district levies and be "revenue neutral" in the short run, he said. However, over time the statewide levy would raise extra money as property values rise, McKenna said.
"You can't pay for basic education from local levies," McKenna said.
Paying for basic education has become the hot topic in McKenna's tight race for governor against Jay Inslee, a former Democratic congressman from Bainbridge Island. Last week, the two sparred over the issue in a debate in Yakima, and they will face off again in Seattle on Thursday.
In January, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state is not living up to its constitutional obligation to fully fund K-12 basic education. While already accounting for 44 percent of the state's $31 billion operating budget, K-12 education needs about $1 billion more to meet the constitutional requirements, and the Democrat-controlled Legislature is trying to develop a new plan.
During the debate and on his website, Inslee called the levy swap "a gimmick" that would raise taxes on property owners in high-value districts without filling the budget gap. Instead, he has pushed for a plan to increase funding for early childhood education, grants for schools and teacher recruitment, though he's given few specific on how to pay for it.
In a twist, McKenna is actually endorsing a plan by a Democrat, Rep. Ross Hunter of Medina, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. Hunter is one of the Senate's top budget writers and has said he believes the statewide levy plan would help shore up levy inequality between rich and poor districts.
McKenna said the state needs to curb growth in other areas to fund education, such as reducing the public workforce through attrition, cut back on state employees' health insurance plans and capping noneducation spending growth.
"I don't see any other way that we can get where we need to be," McKenna said.
Washington currently collects $2.08 per $1,000 of assessed value on real estate as a common school levy with a legal maximum takeout of $3.60. McKenna anticipates increasing the common levy -- he didn't specify an amount -- would lead to a reduction in local levies, which he said have risen as state subsidies to education have decreased.
Also during the hourlong interview, McKenna touched on the proposed coal terminals in Washington, including the $643 million Millennium Bulk Terminals proposal west of Longview.
McKenna said he believes coal will be shipped west from Montana and Wyoming regardless, so Washington state should take advantage of the job opportunities instead of sending them to Canadian terminals.
"Trains are likely coming anyway. I'd rather keep the jobs here than roll them all the way through to British Columbia," McKenna said.
A King 5 poll conducted by Survey USA last week showed Inslee up in the race 48-42 percent among likely voters. Recent Elway and Rasmussen polls show Inslee leading, though by thin margins that are well within the margin of error.
Nevertheless, McKenna said he thinks he's in a good position for the Nov. 6 election to become the state's first Republican governor since John Spellman served 1981-85. He said he has a proven track record of working with Democrats, which he would use in the governor's mansion.
"It's easier when you're in the opposition party, because the expectations are different," McKenna said.