Op-Ed: Instead of raising taxes, state should look at untapped education dollars
I can't recall ever having my office phone and e-mail explode with calls and letters as they have after the governor announced her proposed 2011-13 budget adjustments to address the $2 billion spending gap. Believe me, I understand why, but as your legislator my job is to find workable solutions to funding our state's top priorities, including K-12 education.
The greatest concern from teachers, parents and school administrators is the governor's proposal to cut $152 million from levy equalization (LEA) payments to school districts. The purpose of LEA is to make sure that property-poor areas are equalized in education funding with their property-rich areas of the state, which are located in King County.
Part of the reason the 7th District, as well as other rural areas around the state, suffers from low tax collections is the fact that many of the counties are primarily owned by government – state, federal and tribal. A detailed report from the Okanogan County Farm Bureau outlining the land situation in Okanogan County found only 23 percent of the county is privately owned. The remaining 77 percent of the county is government owned. That's roughly 782,184 acres of privately-owned land out of 3.4 million. Why is this important to school funding and what does it have to do with LEA?
When governments own land, they pay only a fraction of the property tax liability private owners pay. It's called Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT. Currently, the state is looking at lowering PILT payments to counties. In the tribe's case, no property taxes are collected at all.
Property taxes are the mainstay funding for school districts since that is where landowners pay for school levies and a chunk also goes to the state. When land is taken off the tax rolls, it hurts schools. In the case of Okanogan County, a mere 23 percent of property owners pay for services for the entire county, including schools.
Another consideration is once land is taken into government ownership there are severe restrictions that hamper economic development needed to prop up the tax base to pay for critical services and our education system.
With these facts in mind, the Legislature made a promise to help our property-poor schools by equalizing funding in the form of LEA dollars. The funds ensure that no matter where a child lives, he or she is afforded the same education as their counterparts in property-rich parts of the state. But, spending priorities are out of whack in Olympia. Instead of taking care of kids and our most vulnerable, budget writers continue to spend money hand over fist on programs and land purchases we can't afford to maintain today, or in the future.
It's time for bold action on the budget and finding ways to tap funding that is obvious to those of us willing to fight to save levy equalization and education funding. For example: Instead of buying more state land that creates more debt service in the state budget and binds taxpayers to years of upkeep, let's forego those purchases and put the savings toward LEA.
Another untapped resource is state trust land timber. Some of the land in Okanogan County, such as Loomis Forest, was purchased to be school trust land. Money generated from the sale of timber harvested on the land is directed toward school funding. However, some of those lands are being left in disrepair creating poor timber conditions, including disease and overcrowding. This lessens the quality and availability of trees. This same situation is plaguing other trust lands statewide, which hurts school funding.
It begs the question, what is more important: funding for schools and services for our communities or purchasing more land for the state and activist organizations that puts the state in further debt?
Just like the floor battle that stopped a $60 million raid on LEA funds in 2009, I will again fight to protect state LEA funding and offer common-sense solutions that ensure education is treated as the paramount duty it is.
Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, is the deputy leader for the House Republicans. He serves on the House Education Committee.