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Washington Governor Pledges Tax-Reform Push

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Washington State's new governor, who has been threatened with a statewide walkout by teachers angry over his failure to back higher teacher salaries and other school-reform proposals, told the state's largest teachers' group last month that he would press the legislature to enact tax initiatives that could expand revenues for education spending.

While stopping short of pledging that any new revenues would be used for school reforms, Gov. Booth Gardner told members of the Washington Education Association that "we need a balanced tax structure in this state which is some combination of income, sales, and property and which is responsive to the circumstances of the economy." But he warned that "we've got a tremendous sales job ahead of us."

The Governor has indicated that he expects the legislature, which was scheduled to recess this week, to remain in session until it approves an interim tax increase.

Washington is one of a handful of states with no income tax. The state provides about 90 percent of school funding, and in recent years education budgets have suffered from the deep recession in the lumber and other industries that slashed state revenues.

Educators have been particularly upset with Governor Gardner, however, because several reform commissions last year proposed substantive new education programs and former Gov. John Spellman had pledged that 1985 would be "the year of education reform" in the state. But the new Governor's first budget proposed steady-state funding for schools, with only minimum adjustments upward for enrollment and inflation.

In recent weeks, the wea hinted it would call a one-day walkout to protest Governor Gardner's failure to include salary increases for teach-ers and financing for education-reform measures in his biennial budget request.

"We think that's progress," said John Cahill, a spokesman for the wea, of the Governor's tax-reform plans. "But there's still a long way to go. We plan to keep the pressure on the Governor. He's more concerned with fiscal matters than education."

Mr. Cahill also noted that the union, while pleased with the Governor's desire for tax reform, had hoped he would address "what he would do with education if he had the money."

Local Actions

To call attention to teachers' demands for competitive salaries and reduced class sizes, the wea and a number of other education groups in the state organized local demonstrations rather than a statewide walk-out. The largest such action was a rally held on April 12 in Tacoma, according to Mr. Cahill, with 4,000 educators receiving permission to take the time off from work.

The protests against the Governor's budget, Mr. Cahill said, provided a message "that the legislature needs to get serious about funding education and striving for excellence in the schools, and that we can't continue to accept excuses year in and year out. We want full funding of basic education."

(In 1983, Washington's high court ruled that the state had improperly underfinanced basic education and ordered the legislature to restore cuts and correct other deficiencies in the school-aid system. But the definition of basic education has been interpreted differently by educators and policymakers.)

Failure by lawmakers to approve increased funds for education could prompt renewed interest in a statewide teachers' strike, Mr. Cahill said, noting that "that's a very extreme tactic and one that's difficult to pull off."

Over the years, Washington State has narrowed the base of its taxes on sales and businesses, according to Laird Harris, the Governor's chief policy assistant. And in the past 20 years, two attempts at tax reform have failed.

To broaden the tax base, Governor Gardner proposed an interim tax increase of $375 million--to be achieved by establishing a sales tax on gasoline and by increasing the business-and-occupations tax rate--but that proposal was defeated in the current session.

Nonetheless, according to Mr. Harris, "the Governor has made it clear that he expects the legislature to stay there until they give him a reasonable budget and ways to fund it."

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