- Associated Press - Monday, February 22, 2016

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - House Democrats would hike the state’s portion of the lowest starting salary for public school teachers to $40,000-a-year by closing several tax exemptions as part of their supplemental budget released on Monday.

The plan would alter the $38 billion, two-year state budget adopted in 2015, including directing $318 million from the state’s emergency fund to pay for needs such as wildfire suppression, reducing youth homelessness and another $148.9 million from the fund for school construction going to the capital budget.

“This is not a year just to relax and get out of town,” said Rep. Hans Dunshee, a Democrat from Snohomish, during a news conference. Dunshee is the main budget writer for the House. “There are really serious crises that need to be addressed.”

One of those crises is a perceived teacher shortage.

A 2015 survey by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction reports that 93 percent of 733 principals say they either struggle to find qualified teaching candidates or are in “crisis mode,” looking for teachers. Forty-five percent say they couldn’t fill openings with qualified teachers.

Besides a pay raise, the budget proposal would give teachers a bonus for working in “challenging” schools and attaining their continuing professional certification. More support for beginning teachers is also in the proposed $99 million teacher recruitment package. The state currently pays teachers a minimum of about $35,000-a-year, said Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes.

To pay for the package, six tax exemptions would be closed, saving the state about $119.5 million in the current two-year budget cycle. One would repeal a sales tax exemption on bottled water. Gov. Jay Inslee’s December supplemental budget proposal also proposed closing four of the exemptions Democrats are seeking.

Republicans criticized the House budget, saying it cuts $487 million in the next two-year budget cycle intended for reducing the class sizes for students in kindergarten through third grade, as well as other requirements from the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision on school finance. The Senate is set to propose its budget in the coming weeks.

“House Democrats cut to education funding demonstrates exactly why we’re in the position we are today facing a state Supreme Court mandate and a system that does not work for all children,” said Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island in a written statement.

Dunshee said in a phone interview House Democrats don’t plan to cut the money. He said there would be full funding for reducing the sizes of early-grade classes. He put the cuts in the proposal to bring attention to how much money is needed to fund McCleary, as well as the current system of projecting budgets four years in advance which he called “voodoo economics.” Dunshee estimates fully funding McCleary will cost the state around $4 billion.

The House budget also includes more than $189 million from the emergency fund to pay for battling last summer’s wildfires that burned 1 million acres and destroyed more than 300 homes.

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