OLYMPIA – They’re done.
Lawmakers will not be coming back to Olympia for a special session, Gov. Chris Gregoire said Thursday. That means that several budget bills potentially worth millions of dollars to schools and the state correctional system will stay dead.
Gregoire said top lawmakers – Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and House Speaker Frank Chopp – couldn’t agree on the details for a short special session. Gregoire had hoped for a one-day session with quick votes on a few agreed-to bills. Among them: the budget bills, which were left undone in the final rushed hours of the legislative session April 26.
The decision not to revisit those bills is good news and bad news for schools.
It’s good news for many poor and rural school districts who rely on state “levy equalization” dollars to supplement local property taxes. Lawmakers had planned to trim that program by $60 million.
Now they can’t do that. So schools in Chewelah, for example, won’t lose $72,000 more this year. Deer Park won’t lose $220,000. Tonasket won’t lose $105,000.
The bad news? Lawmakers had also planned to let schools collect up to $68 million in property taxes that voters have already approved but that are off-limits because of a cap on school property taxes.
Lifting that limit could have meant as much as $12.2 million more for Spokane Public Schools, for example, or $4.5 million more for Central Valley.
In some cases, it’s a moot point. Some districts didn’t plan to collect those extra dollars anyway.
“We did not anticipate going above our approved rate even if they had given us the authority,” said East Valley Superintendent John Glenewinkel. The change would have allowed the district to collect $1.7 million more next year.
Cheney School District Superintendent Lawrence Keller said officials there hadn’t decided whether to collect the additional dollars. Cheney could have gotten nearly $1 million more.
“We built our plan assuming there would not be a special session,” Keller said.
Spokane Public Schools had hoped to collect about $1.4 million of the tax money, according to Superintendent Nancy Stowell. The law wouldn’t have required voters’ re-approval, but the district planned to seek it.
“We weren’t going to do that without citizen input,” said Stowell. “But now we won’t be asking the question.”
The total potential $68 million is a tiny percentage of the $1.1 billion less than expected that schools will get from the state this year. Many districts are offsetting some of those cuts with federal stimulus dollars. Still, for a teacher about to get laid off, the extra money could have been critical, said Gary Kipp, executive director of the Association of Washington School Principals.
Gregoire noted that schools got the smallest percentage spending cuts of virtually anyone this year.
“Everybody is going to have to sacrifice,” she said. “The lowest cut in any program was in our K-12. It was about 2.6 percent.” Budget writers tried hard to shield basic education, she said, and largely succeeded.
To many Republican lawmakers, the school legislation was doubly bad: It would have cut funding to some rural schools and allowed dozens of others to collect more tax dollars.
“This was absolutely the right decision by the governor,” said state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Mead.
Majority Democrats on Thursday downplayed their inability to agree on a special session agenda, noting that they finished the vast majority of their work. Within the 105-day regular session, they managed to agree on a $35 billion, two-year budget that whacks about $4 billion from projected state spending. “All in all, we got a tremendous amount of the job accomplished,” Brown said.
House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said the savings to the state were not urgent enough to haul the entire Legislature back to Olympia for a quickie special session.
“We got out of Dodge and did what we had to do,” she said.
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