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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Levy cliff extension for Washington school districts headed to Inslee

OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee tells reporters at a press conference on March 9, 2017, that he will sign the bill to extend the “levy cliff” when it arrives on his desk. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee tells reporters at a press conference on March 9, 2017, that he will sign the bill to extend the “levy cliff” when it arrives on his desk. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Washington school districts will not see their budgets cut this year by an automatic drop in their property tax levies.

After two months of squabbling and negotiating, both chambers of the Legislature were able to reach a deal on a delay to the so-called levy cliff, passing and sending a compromise bill to Gov. Jay Inslee with overwhelming majorities.

“I’ll sign it as soon as it’s available,” Inslee said Thursday afternoon. The process of getting a bill from the Legislature to t he governor’s desk typically takes a few days.

On Thursday morning, the House quickly passed the compromise that sailed through the Senate Wednesday night. It provides a one-year delay to the scheduled reduction in taxing authority that school districts face in 2018. That taxing authority was raised temporarily in 2010 to make up for declining state funding, but current law says the districts would go back to the old formulas at the end of this year.

The compromise bill extends the authority for one year, which House Democrats had pushed through in the first bill they passed in January. But it includes accountability measures Republicans – who had blocked the House bill in the Senate for weeks – demanded to make sure the money is spent properly.

“This is a good first step,” Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, said. “It’s not a touchdown spike celebration.”

The Legislature must still come up with a more extensive plan to reform public schools and the property tax system that helps pay for them. A 2012 state Supreme Court ruling says the state is responsible for the costs of “basic education” but many districts had been dipping into the money they collected through local property tax levies to cover some of those costs. That has to stop by next year, the court said, and lawmakers may be months away from crafting that overall plan and finding a way to pay for it. 

If they succeed, changes in the tax structure may make this week’s action on the levy cliff moot. But school districts already are starting to write their budgets for the 2017-18 school year, and some school officials said without an extension of the current property tax authority, they would have to write smaller budgets and plan for layoffs, even though lawmakers were assuring them they’d get more money when the reforms are done.

While supporters of the levy cliff bill called it just a first step, opponents worried it would remove some of the urgency to reach the bigger solution. 

“I don’t want to see us lose the motivation to continue pushing forward,” Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, said in explaining why he would vote no.

Inslee said he didn’t think the two-month struggle to approve a delay on the levy cliff was necessarily a sign the Legislature is in for months of arguments and extended sessions to reach agreement on school reform package. 

There’s no reason not to have serious discussions, and a package could be negotiated in “the next several weeks,” he said. Did he believe the Legislature could avoid special sessions that run the state close to the end of its fiscal year, which they’ve needed in recent years?

“They can,” Inslee said. “I’m not going to advise people to place bets on any particular outcome.” 

How they voted

The Senate approved Senate Bill 5023, which extends special taxing authority for school districts for one year and requires extra accountability for that money, on a 47-1 vote Wednesday. Among Spokane-area senators, Republicans Mike Padden, Mark Schoesler and Shelly Short, and Democrat Andy Billig voted yes; Republican Mike Baumgartner voted no.

The House approved it 87-10 Thursday. Among Spokane-area representatives, Republicans Jeff Holy, Joel Kretz, Jacquelin Maycumber and Mike Volz, and Democrats Timm Ormsby and Marcus Riccelli voted yes; Republicans Mary Dye, Bob McCaslin, Joe Schmick and Matt Shea voted no.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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