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Tuesday, February 18, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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State budget on hold as lawmakers debate suspending part of class-size initiative

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is joined by lawmakers and supporters as he prepares to sign a bill cutting tuition at state colleges and universities Monday in Olympia. (Associated Press)
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is joined by lawmakers and supporters as he prepares to sign a bill cutting tuition at state colleges and universities Monday in Olympia. (Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – Democrats and Republicans in the Senate remained at odds Monday over a key bill designed to keep the recently approved $38.2 billion operating budget balanced. But the dispute, which pushed the Legislature into its 172nd day, had no solution in sight.

A measure to suspend parts of Initiative 1351, which requires smaller class sizes from kindergarten through high school, is necessary to make the state’s budgets balance over the next four years. It failed to get enough Democratic votes to pass the needed two-thirds supermajority after an all-night session in the Senate last week.

“We would like to find a solution,” Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said Monday, adding she believes Republican leaders are receptive.

A top Senate Republican acknowledged the two sides are talking but offered no indication where a compromise could be reached. “Our priorities are clear,” said Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn.

Senate Republicans said there was a clear agreement among both parties’ leaders in both chambers to suspend the initiative as part of the overall budget deal that avoided a government shutdown last week. Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said the details of how it would be suspended and for how long weren’t known until Monday; when Senate Democrats saw them, most members balked.

They proposed passing a bill to solve another education problem by revising test requirements for high school seniors that were keeping some students from graduating. It had passed the House with strong bipartisan support several times but never received a vote in the Senate. Republicans countered by offering a temporary suspension of some tests, with the possibility of further changes next year. Democrats said no, and the vote on suspending the initiative, which needed at least nine Democratic votes, only got three.

Democrats call the assessment exams “high-stakes testing.” But Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, chairman of the Senate education committee, on Monday criticized the efforts to change the testing requirements. “We’re asking how do we raise the kids to meet the standards. Senate Democrats want to lower the standards to the kids.”

The compromise on testing is no longer being offered, Fain said.

The House’s top budget writer, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, offered no support for revising the bill that delays much of the initiative for four years. It already passed that chamber 72-26. “That thing is done,” Hunter said.

Gov. Jay Inslee, who on Monday signed some 30 bills passed in the days before the stalemate, ducked questions about the stalemate after his public appearances. A spokeswoman said Inslee and his staff are talking with legislative leaders “to find a way for lawmakers to get their work done, and we believe that will happen soon.”

Spokeswoman Jaime Smith reiterated the assessment by budget director David Schumacher that the failure to suspend parts of I-1351 is not a crisis but a problem Inslee wants fixed soon. After reaching a framework for a budget that would keep state government running into a new fiscal year, the governor and his staff left it to legislators to settle questions around I-1351.

Most lawmakers stayed away from the Capitol unless a bill they sponsored was being signed. Fain said senators will be given at least 48 hours to return to Olympia after an agreement is reached for votes on bills that presumably would end the session. That would have to be before July 27, or the Legislature would face an unprecedented fourth special session in a row.

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