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Senate OKs budget plan calling for another class-size vote

OLYMPIA – Washington voters could be asked this fall whether they really want smaller class sizes in all public schools like they approved in November, or if they’d settle for just dropping numbers in kindergarten and the primary grades.

In an effort to construct a budget that doesn’t require a tax increase, majority Republicans in the Senate proposed shrinking the number of students in kindergarten through third grade to 17, as an initiative approved last year requires, but leaving larger numbers in fourth grade and up. It would require fewer teachers, principals and support staff than would be needed to comply with I-1351 – and save the state billions of dollars, supporters said.

By making the changes in legislation that has a referendum clause that requires voter approval, the plan would also allow the Legislature to change I-1351 with a simple majority rather than the two-thirds majority usually required to amend an initiative within two years of its passage.

But it’s also a “high-stakes” gamble, said Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam. If voters reject the referendum, legislators would have an immediate hole of $2 billion in the state’s operating budget.

I-1351 didn’t specify how the state would pay for smaller class sizes, and the referendum is just a way of going back to voters and asking them to support it if they know the cost, said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver. “Yes, we’re going to be in a tough spot (if the referendum fails). We’ve been in tough spots before.”

Eliminating the class reductions for fourth grade and up is like telling those students “you don’t matter,” and the referendum is telling voters “we don’t like what you did,” said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood.

But concentrating on the youngest grades, where research shows small class sizes have the greatest impact, would show the Legislature believes the issue is important and “we’re making strides towards getting there,” said Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic.

The bill passed 27-22, picking up only one minority Democrat, and was sent to the House before the Senate turned to the $38 billion operating budget to which it is linked. That allowed both parties to reprise, in shortened and more congenial form, their nine-hour budget debate from Thursday night and Friday morning on the two-year spending plan that would cut college tuition and put about $1.3 billion toward public schools without raising taxes.

Cutting tuition amounts to a middle-class tax cut, said Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane. “No one nationally has done this.”

But Democrats said it has hidden costs, it relies on shifting marijuana taxes, and the approval of the class-size referendum was “a house of cards.” Several Republicans also signaled they wouldn’t vote for a final budget that rejected raises for state employees that have already been negotiated or cuts to social services like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, which are part of this plan. But all members of the majority coalition, which consists of all 25 Republicans and Democrat Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, voted yes and all other Democrats voted no, producing the same split that existed on most amendments that failed in the protracted debate last week.

That vote means the budget process moves into the next phase, in which budget leaders try to negotiate a final bill that will pass both chambers.

House Democrats passed a much different budget last week that would require a capital gains tax and some other tax changes, but those taxes haven’t been put to a committee vote. Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said the plan passed Monday is in a stronger position because the additional legislation it needs also has passed the Senate.

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