McKenna's plan for schools gets an 'A' for effort, but...

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I have to give Rob McKenna credit: He’s finally putting his calculator where his mouth is.

McKenna, the Republican candidate for governor, shook up that political race last year by announcing he plans to pour billions more dollars into the state’s schools and colleges.

It was quite a chord change for the usually slash-happy Republicans. But it was also sweet nothings. Where would he get the money?

“Rob McKenna is making billions in campaign promises without offering one concrete proposal on how to pay for them,” state Democrats charged at the time, correctly (without adding that the same applies to their own candidate, Jay Inslee.)

Recently he got concrete. He convened some reporters at his Chinatown International District office and had us squint at budget spreadsheets for an hour.

“You guys have been asking for this since last year,” McKenna said. “The other side, they have no plan of their own. They just throw words out.”

The McKenna plan is more of a guide to how he would write budgets as governor. The plan is to boost spending on both K-12 schools and colleges at twice the rate as everything else.

To do this, he would impose a spending cap on all else the state does — such as health care, prisons or state-worker salaries. The cap would be the rate of population growth plus inflation (roughly about 3 percent per year currently.)

In the beginning, this wouldn’t do much. But by 2020, it would shift about $2 billion more into the K-12 schools annually, and $600 million more per year into the higher-education system. That’s serious money. The rest of the budget would continue to go up, just slowly.

The idea of capping all non-education spending is McKenna’s way of saying that schools matter most. And of avoiding new taxes.

“We can’t continue to make excuses,” he said.

Is this a real plan? I like the spirit behind it. My generation and the one before it reaped the benefits of amply funded schools and colleges, then let the system wither. McKenna wants to start reversing that, and he is right.

The trouble, though, is the hard cap on everything else. It’s Eymanesque in its appeal. But that means it’s probably too simplistic to be true.

I could see there being years when state needs rise only 3 percent. But obviously there will be times when something busts those caps — a soaring prison population, say, or medical costs. What happens then?

“McKenna won’t stick to it,” predicts Sen. Ed Murray, a Democrat who likely will continue to be the state Senate’s chief budget writer if McKenna enters office next year. “He won’t be able to sit in that office and cut breast-cancer screening for poor women, or cut nursing-home care for the disabled elderly, just to stay under his artificial 3 percent cap. He won’t morally be able to do it.”

When Republicans took over the budget last spring they had a chance to root out other less important stuff to boost education. They failed. The notion that this just takes discipline or prudence seemed a myth.

Still I give McKenna props anyway, even if his plan doesn’t perfectly pencil out.

This is a desultory political era, devoid of substance. Candidates used to put out detailed plans, so you could at least hold them accountable. As The New York Times’ David Brooks said about the dull presidential campaign: “President Obama’s proposals are small and medium-size retreads, while Mitt Romney has run the closest thing to a policy-free race as any candidate in my lifetime.”

Why? Because we don’t want to hear it. The more specific they get, the more they’re punished.

Which is probably what will happen to McKenna. But at least he’s trying.

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