Education continues to be one of the top issues the 2014 Legislature will face when it convenes in January.
The candidates running for 31st District House Position No. 2, incumbent Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Greenwater, and challenger Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, discussed education last week in phone interviews with The Courier-Herald.
Framing the issue of education is the Sept. 11 Supreme Court ruling holding the state Legislature in contempt for not complying with the court’s Jan. 5 2012 McCleary v. Washington order to fully fund K-12 public education.
Fortunato believes the Supreme Court overstepped its authority when it found the Legislature in contempt for not fully funding eduction.
“I’m trying to figure out how the court became a super legislature,” Fortunato said. “If we spend $2 billion you will be fully funding education? That’s a number picked out of the air. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Hurst said in terms of funding education, “We’ve made significant progress in the last legislative session.” He cited more than $1 billion dollars allocated for public education.
Hurst recommended reforming health care for teachers was a place to look for savings.
“We need to take a look at health insurance and (remove) the middle men in the health care system,” Hurst said. “No other reform has the price tag (like) the health care system.”
According to Hurst, teacher health insurance plans are determined by their individual school districts, with each district offering a different level of coverage at a different cost.
Hurst said at the very least, $200 million dollars can be saved through middle-man costs and repetitive fees, and at most, upward of $400 million.
Fortunato said his proposal to deal with the contempt ruling on fully funding education would be to present two bills to the voters, one that would increase taxes and a second that would spend more money on education but make cuts and there would be no tax increase.
Fortunato said, “I don’t think we need to raise taxes.”
He said of the Supreme Court’s decision, “To me it’s a bunch of words…. I don’t have a problem with the Supreme Court saying the Legislature is not fully funding education. I don’t know where we are going to get it. I believe (that) is the Legislature’s job.”
In terms of a tax increase, Hurst said, “At some point in time, we may need to partner with voters to raise taxes for education, but the Legislature can’t do it on its own.”
The largest problem Hurst sees with raising taxes is voters cannot be assured the money will be used solely for funding public education.
To remedy this, Hurst suggests the Legislature create a fourth state budget for the sole purpose of education.
Currently, Washington state has three state budgets – the capitol budget, the transportation budget and the operation budget, “which 50 percent of it (operation budget) already goes towards education,” Hurst said.
The creation of a fourth education budget, Hurst said, may build voters’ confidence, because it could be assured the revenue in the budget would go toward funding education.
Fortunato said he is a businessman and not an educator, but he believes regulations were costing funds and efficiency in the education system.
“We need to look at what we are asking and make it more efficient.”
Fortunato also said he thought transportation was equally as important as education to the state. He said improving transportation is the key to the state’s economic recovery.