Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna says property poor school districts, including those in Aberdeen and Hoquiam, will likely see lower taxes under his plan to replace local levy dollars with state levy dollars.
The goal is to ensure that the exact same child can walk into a Bellevue classroom or a Hoquiam classroom and get the same educational opportunities, said McKenna, who has been the state’s Attorney General for the past eight years. After the state Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the state is failing in its constitutional duty to “amply” fund basic education and relies too much on local levy dollars, McKenna says that swift action needs to be taken.
McKenna was interviewed by The Daily World’s Editorial Board last week on education, the economy and local issues.
Yes, McKenna says, more dollars must go toward education. He has a detailed plan for that, which includes capping the spending growth of other state agencies at 6 percent and then devoting extra revenue to education. But, also, he says the court decision lays out specifically that the state needs to rely less on local levy dollars. “For every dollar you reduce local levy money, you add a dollar of state money,” McKenna said. “Many areas of our state are paying local levy amounts that they shouldn’t be because the state isn’t doing its job. So it’s a correction. It takes us back to where we were in the 1970s.”
The easiest way to solve that aspect of the decision is this “property tax swap” — a phrase that his gubernatorial rival, former Democratic congressman Jay Inslee, has consistently been using in campaign ads telling voters that all of their taxes will go up.
“Inslee has no alternative,” McKenna said, noting it was first talked about by both Republican and Democrat budget writers. “He is cynically attacking this because he thinks he can score points and wants to avoid his own record of raising taxes as a congressman and state legislator. … No one has come up with any other option. The requirement is to amply fund education and to fund it in a uniform way, that way no matter where a child lives in the state, they will have access to the same kinds of programs.”
So, how about it? Who’s taxes will go up or down?
“Yes, it would lower property taxes in property poor areas like Aberdeen and Hoquiam,” McKenna says.
Would taxes rise in property rich areas, such as Ocean Shores or Seattle?
“I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion,” McKenna said. “Everyone will be interested in knowing the answer to that. I don’t think it’ll be a dramatic shift in any event, because it will allow greater leverage of the commercial property tax base.”
Basically, areas that get levy equalization dollars today from the state may see some savings, under the property tax swap plan, McKenna said. Those levy equalization dollars would also go away as the state takes on the duty of providing more dollars equally to all of the school districts in the state.
The goal, McKenna said, is to have an equal playing field, to create uniformity to comply with the court decision. However, if school districts still want to do local school levies, their School Boards can do that to pay for extracurricular activities. Many local levies fund sports, but the funds also go toward teacher salaries and positions because the state has cut away those dollars.
“It’s not taking away local control, it’s undoing harm that’s been done to local school districts who have been forced to raise their local levy rates because the Legislature has been underfunding education and shifting the cost to local school districts,” McKenna said.
McKenna said his plan would also add an additional $3.7 billion to education spending by limiting non-education spending to 6 percent each year. The thought is to take revenue above 6 percent and give it to education. His plan also relies on projected economic growth in the state, an estimate that he called relatively conservative.
Yes, McKenna admits, that would require continued belt tightening of state agencies over the next decade and elimination of state jobs, which he says he would do by attrition, not layoffs.
”And I will do that by increasing productivity of people who are there,” McKenna said. “That’s what I’ve done in my office and the Attorney General’s Office as of last fall has 14 percent fewer employees than we did four years before. People who are left are more productive.”
State workers would also no longer be at the front of the line for increased salaries and benefits under his plan. “Collective bargaining is not something that acts like a force of gravity,” McKenna said. “We need to end this practice of funding salaries and benefits first and then funding everything else that’s left over. It’s the kids’ turn.”
That change in state law was made under former Gov. Gary Locke, which took the Legislature out of the bargaining process and made it exclusively with the governor. “Now we spend more on health insurance premiums for government workers than on the entire higher education budget,” McKenna said. “That’s how out of line it’s gotten.”
McKenna says at his office, he has ordered pay to be based on on performance and how his employees do their jobs. Reccent civil service reform made performance pay an option. McKenna said as governor he would make it a requirement for all state agencies.
”I will order it in every agency and for non-represented employees and we will bargain it for the represented employee,” McKenna said. “I think every worker ought to be paid based on performance, not seniority.”
McKenna pledged to also be be a voice for the timber industry, saying that he has personally visited mills that would be in production more if they had raw materials to do it.
“When I see mills shut because they can’t get raw material even though they have markets for finished product, that signals a real problem,” McKenna said.
He notes that the state Department of Natural Resources is doing its job, but the federal government has fallen short in opening up the National Forests to more thinning and logging projects. McKenna said he’ll advocate to increase harvest levels in National Forests. And he said he’ll advocate for increased dollars for workforce training for the companies that do operate in rural areas.
McKenna also favors reforms in the state’s business & occupation taxes for new businesses and unemployment insurance reform.
”Look at logging right now, it’s $18.50 an hour just for a logger for L&I,” McKenna said. “That’s three times as much as Oregon. It shouldn’t be the cheapest but this is way out of line. Regulations have been piled on and piled on with no relief.”
McKenna also criticized the state Department of Commerce for not doing more to help the Harbor, which has coped with double-digit unemployment since 2008.
“We need a Commerce Department that is much more aggressive in terms of its salesmanship of opportunities in this state,” he said. “We don’t have that right now to be blunt about it. I don’t think our Commerce Department is proactively marketing our state or trying to draw business here or support business formation here. How many cold calls do they make a week from those offices? How many company visits to they organize here to come to our state, including Grays Harbor County, to look at our resources available here? Not too much. They do a lot of studies, but a lot of that is moving information around on paper. It doesn’t produce something. So I’ll be looking for a commerce chief with a background in economic development and sales, who can go out and attract capital and talent to this area.”
McKenna says he will also borrow a page from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff to President Barack Obama. When Emanuel became mayor last year, he implemented a system of “managed competition” where public employees compete against private bidders for contracts to provide services.
“Mayor Emanuel was able to take Chicago from the fiscal cliff with that strategy,” McKenna said. “I will identify a product the state is buying or providing — such as printing services or taking care of foster kids, allow state employees to bid on it and invite a private company to bid on it to see what’s cheaper. When our state employees do win a contract, they are doing it at a lower cost and more effectively because they are going to tell you what they need to be competitive. This will drive out waste and drive in savings.”
McKenna did dispute another negative ad that says he doesn’t support the automatic increase for the minimum wage.
“The voters made it very clear that automatic minimum wage should be adjusted for inflation and I support that,” he said.
McKenna said he will be voting against Referendum 74, allowing same sex marriage. But, he points out, he voted for a referendum allowing same sex partners to have the same legal rights as married couples.
He says he’s against the initiative to legalize marijuana “because I think it’s a mistake to decriminalize a product that will still be a federal crime. It’s a bad signal to send to voters, who may misunderstand that they can still be prosecuted.”
And he’s voting for Initiative 1185 “for the fifth time to reinstate the two-thirds voting requirement for taxes in the Legislature. And we will successfully defend it in the state Supreme Court.”