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Inslee Proposes Pay Hike For Washington Teachers

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee unveils his 2016 supplemental budget proposal in Olympia Dec. 17, 2015.

The starting salary for public school teachers in Washington state would rise to $40,000 a year under a proposal unveiled Thursday by Governor Jay Inslee. 

The first-term Democrat would pay for the higher teacher salaries, estimated at $80 million dollars next year, by closing a series of tax exemptions, including the sales tax break on bottled water and a use tax exemption for extracted fuel claimed by oil refineries.

"Having a classroom teacher to teach a kid algebra right now is more important than some oil industry tax break," Inslee said at a budget unveiling event at the Capitol.

Under the plan, the minimum teacher salary in Washington would go up by $4,300 next school year, on top of an already budgeted 4.8% cost-of-living increase. The governor's office estimates more than 8,700 teachers would get a raise of between $1,000 and $4,300. Experienced teachers along with classified and administrative staff would also receive a minimum 1 percent salary increase beginning next year.

Inslee noted the state is facing a teacher shortage because of a wave of retirements, but also because of difficulties retaining new teachers in the profession.

"We're just hearing these stories over and over, so we have to do this," Inslee said of paying teachers more.

The teacher pay proposal is part of Inslee's suggested update to the state's current two-year $38 billion budget. 

Other top spending items in the governor's supplemental budget include $178 million to cover firefighting costs from last summer's record fires and $180 million to pay for rising Medicaid caseloads and health care costs.

Inslee also proposes to spend an additional $137 million on mental health care in Washington, including the hiring of additional nurses and psychologists to address critical safety issues at Western State Hospital. 

In total, Inslee would spend about $700 million more during the current two-year budget cycle. To pay for these items, Inslee would rely on fund transfers and money taken from the state's Budget Stabilization Account. His teacher pay proposal would be paid for by abolishing or limiting four tax breaks:

  • a tax exemption for extracted fuels that benefits the state's five oil refineries 
  • the sales tax exemption for shoppers from Oregon and other no-sales tax states
  • the sales tax exemption on bottled water
  • a real estate excise tax exemption for properties sold in foreclosure proceedings

Previous efforts to close these tax exemptions have run into opposition from legislative Republicans who control the Washington Senate. After the budget unveiling, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant agreed that recruiting and retaining teachers is a problem in Washington, but criticized Inslee's plan to sunset tax exemptions.
"We do need to deal with the teacher shortage so I applaud him for trying to do it, but I would reallocate resources rather than proposing new taxes," said Bryant.

Senate Republican budget chair Andy Hill also criticized the budget as unrealistic and noted it doesn't balance over four years. "It's not helpful for the Legislature because it doesn't deal with the realities of writing a budget," said Hill in a statement. "It's philosophically easy to propose eliminating the same job incentives and tax preferences that have been proposed for years ... it doesn't help us get to a final bipartisan plan."

Inslee called the tax exemptions he proposes to eliminate or curtail "barnacles that are crusted on the ship of state." Inslee also defended his budget proposal as "modest" and noted it would still leave $961 million in reserves. Separately, he also proposes an additional $16 million in transportation spending for, among other things, more electric vehicle incentives and more crews to clear highway traffic incidents.

The governor's budget is just a proposal. Majority Democrats in the Washington House and majority Republicans in the state Senate will propose their own supplemental budgets when they reconvene for the 2016 legislative session. It took the divided legislature until the end of June and the brink of a government shutdown to agree on the current two-year spending plan.

The 2016 legislative session is a short 60-day election year session.