OLYMPIA – To explain the current state of the Washington Legislature, forget the philosophy of Rousseau, the ideas of Jefferson or the eloquence of Lincoln. Turn instead to the dictum of Berra: It ain’t over ’til it’s over.
For the Legislature, it definitely ain’t over.
The Senate failed shortly after dawn Wednesday to change state law to prevent a $2 billion hole from opening up in the 2015-17 operating budget.
Senate Democrats said they were trying to balance a negative for the state’s schoolchildren on crowded classrooms with a positive on easing test requirements for some students being denied graduation. Senate Republicans said their counterparts were engaging in vote-swapping extortion.
Some six hours earlier Gov. Jay Inslee had signed the operating budget, beating a midnight deadline by 20 minutes that would have created a partial state government shutdown.
Inslee and members of both parties from both chambers had hailed the budget as a good compromise that serves the interests of the citizens.
Ordinarily, legislators would spend the day after a budget-signing extolling the wonders of that document. And for this particular budget, long debated and hard fought, they would have been talking about the historic nature of an agreement that spends an extra $1.3 billion on public schools to get the state out from under a contempt order from the Supreme Court; lowers tuition for all college students this fall, and drops it again for the four-year schools next year; that shores up a mental health system; and replaces some of the money bled out of safety net programs during the recession.
Instead, they were trying to explain how part of the deal unraveled. State Budget Director David Schumacher said the just-signed budget might be technically illegal because it doesn’t balance. But practically speaking, that’s not a problem if the Legislature fixes it in a few days or weeks.
Legislative leaders were trying to figure out a solution and decide when to call their members back – probably sometime after the July Fourth weekend. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, was clearly more anxious to talk about what he called the positive investments in the budget and reluctant to wade into an interparty fight in the Senate. The House passed the bill on Monday with a supermajority by building relationships between the two parties, he said. But how each chamber would get those votes “was left to further negotiations,” Chopp said, and he couldn’t comment on what agreements might have existed in the Senate.
The fight in the Senate was over something that’s not a significant part of the budget: an effort to ease current requirements for high school students to pass certain assessment tests to graduate. And yet it stopped something that’s a very big part of the budget: a bill to suspend for four years the 2014 ballot measure to reduce the number of students in classrooms for all grades.
Voters passed Initiative 1351, but legislators and Inslee said it was too expensive to do on the timetable required by the ballot measure and wanted to delay much of it for students in fourth through 12th grades for four years. No budget proposal from Inslee, or in either chamber, called for full funding of I-1351. And when a compromise was reached last weekend, class reductions were limited to kindergarten through third grade, a change that would save $2 billion in the effort to make the budget balance.
To save that money, the Legislature had to pass those changes to the initiative with a two-thirds majority.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said legislators had a deal that members of both parties would supply the needed votes, because neither side has that supermajority. That’s what happened in the House on Monday, he said.
“This was a very serious breach of trust from the minority in passing a critical piece of the budget,” Schoesler said.
Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said Democratic leaders in that chamber always made clear that this was a tough request for some members who supported the initiative and came from districts that passed it with strong margins. On Tuesday, two Republican senators who would have voted yes were absent, so the number of needed Democratic yes votes went up by two to cover them.
Democrats said they could only get more members to agree to suspend part of I-1351 if Republicans would agree to pass a bill allowing high school seniors who failed a controversial biology assessment test to receive their diplomas. If the Senate was not going to reduce crowded classrooms, Billig said, it should at least help out a few of them unable to graduate because of the assessment test.
Senate Democrats had tried, and failed, to add a provision on the assessment test problems to the budget before it passed Monday. Republican leaders promised to take up the issue next year.
On Tuesday, when Democrats said their extra votes would be contingent on passing a bill from the House on test assessments, Republicans refused. After the transportation tax bill passed the House about 2 a.m. Wednesday, it was stuck for several hours while the two parties tried, but failed, to find a compromise. After the Senate again approved the transportation taxes about 5:15 a.m., it took up the proposed changes to I-1351, and the bill eventually got a 27-17 vote, with three minority Democrats voting yes and two Republicans voting no. That was short of the 33 needed for the supermajority. So it failed.
Legislators were sent home and told they’d be contacted when leaders agreed to vote on a few remaining bills. That probably won’t be before next week, Schoesler said.
“It will be when the greatest number of members can be here,” Chopp said. “It’s just a question of picking the right time.”
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