Now we'll see where education really rates as a priority

Perhaps this economic recession will teach us the inevitable consequences when government spending increases at unsustainable rates, whether the state’s projected budget shortfalls are covered by higher taxes, less spending, or both.

Spending on public schools takes the lion’s share of the state’s operating budget, so whatever is done to cut school spending may be more noticeable than cuts in other programs.

South Kitsap School District (SKSD) is already planning for cuts, since many employees must be notified of possible layoffs by mid-May even though the state’s budget won’t be adopted by then.

Since the state’s spending on K-12 “basic education” isn’t supposed to be cut in even the worst of times, one might wonder how layoffs could be possible.

The answer lies in actions of the legislature and the voters.

Knowing that whatever they define as “basic education” cannot be cut, legislators avoid labeling spending increases as “basic education.” In bad times these increases can be taken back.

Levy equalization funding, also called Local Effort Assistance, is an example of state K-12 spending that the legislature has defined as something other than “basic education” funding.

The governor’s budget proposal for 2009-11 calls for a substantial cut in levy equalization funding as one way to bring spending into line with projected revenues.

Voters approved Initiative 728 in November 2000, thereby creating the Student Achievement Account into which existing tax revenues have been diverted in an effort to increase the state’s K-12 spending.

This Student Achievement Account isn’t labeled as “basic education” funding, so it can be cut when a recession reduces state revenues.

For SKSD, I-728 revenue has more than doubled since 2001. This year, it is a little more than $4.5 million.

While I-728 funding was growing from approximately $1.9 million at the beginning, the increases made it possible to add personnel and programs intended to improve our schools.

Now, with possible cuts looming, those changes may have to be eliminated unless spending cuts in another area can offset reductions in state funding.

It should have been obvious that merely diverting revenue from the state’s general fund to the Student Achievement Account wouldn’t be sustainable during recessions, especially since the campaign in support of I-728 portrayed it as a way to use the state budget surplus that existed then.

A budget surplus during good times usually disappears in recessions, so the I-728 funding clearly could not continue without a new tax to take the place of a disappearing surplus.

In fact, in the mild recession a few years ago, increases in funding for the Student Achievement Account required by I-728 were postponed for lack of revenue.

Even people who didn’t foresee the consequences in 2000 could see them two years later.

But when the economy began growing in 2003 and state revenues increased rapidly during the next few years, insufficient reserves were set aside to cover a shortfall in the next recession.

We seem to suffer from the influence of people on two extremes of the political spectrum when state budgets are adopted.

One side wants to increase spending to use up any surplus, and the other wants to cut taxes to eliminate the surplus.

Too late to help us during this recession, the Legislature proposed and the voters approved a constitutional amendment in November 2007 that created a “budget stabilization account” to hold reserve funds to be used in an emergency or economic recession.

This “rainy day fund” may play an important role in the future, once the economy recovers, revenues rise, and the reserve fund grows.

For now, we can only try to find ways to muddle through without the reserve funds needed to cover shortfalls that result from a recession.

Later, we should remember the effects of the big spending increases during the good times that led to our current situation — and resist the pressure from “special interest groups” to repeat the budget mistakes of the past four years.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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