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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Senate OKs delaying I-1351

Vote clears way for budget, close of session

OLYMPIA – With no votes to spare, the Senate on Thursday mustered the super-majority needed to suspend parts of the citizen initiative requiring smaller class sizes. With that vote and a pair of others, senators paved the way to end the longest session in state history sometime today.

The bill needed 33 yes votes, and got them, but only after Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, switched his vote from no to yes, allowing the bill to be sent to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.

The changes to Initiative 1351, approved by voters last November, took two tries in the Senate. Shortly after dawn on July 1, the Senate locked up over the bill, which is tied to the 2015-17 operating budget that was passed earlier in the week and had been signed just hours before. That put the Legislature, already in its third overtime session, on hold.

The bill will begin the process of dropping the number of students in kindergarten through third grade from 25 to 17 per classroom. Suspended for four years are requirements of the initiative calling for the remaining grades to drop from their current average maximums of between 27 and 28 ¾ to 25 students.

Senate Republicans said it was part of the agreement to get a budget signed in time to avert a partial government shutdown. Senate Democrats said doing something about I-1351 was part of the agreement, but they never signed off on a four-year delay.

Today some Democrats who had voted no last week voted yes.

“I thought we needed to have a thoughtful discussion about class sizes and the will of the voters,” said Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, who switched from a no to a yes. While debate on the Senate floor was relatively brief, Billig said Senate leaders did have those discussions in the past week as they worked on a compromise to pass both the four-year delay to I-1351 and a two-year delay to the biology assessment test that high school seniors must pass to receive their diplomas.

Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, also switched to a yes, but only after warning that full implementation of the initiative will require more state revenue: “I’m hoping when we come back in 2016, that will be part of the discussion.”

But Sen. Mike  Baumgartner, R-Spokane, who voted yes both times, argued the vote wasn’t solely about smaller class sizes, but “on how the Senate works” with compromises and cooperation that goes with governing – an unveiled criticism of Democrats for not mustering enough support on the previous vote. He said he’s voted for bills in the past that he didn’t agree with, such as Medicaid expansion, because it was part of a negotiated agreement.

All five Spokane-area senators – Republicans Brian Dansel, Mike Padden and Mark Schoesler as well as Baumgartner and Billig – voted yes.

With the changes to I-1351 approved, the Senate overwhelmingly approved the two-year delay on a requirement for high school seniors to pass a biology assessment test to receive their diplomas. Senate Democrats have described the delays in enforcing what some consider an unfair test as a positive for some students to help balance out the negative of delaying smaller class sizes. The bill passed 39-5, with Billig, Dansel and Schoesler voting yes, and Baumgartner and Padden voting no.

The Senate also quickly approved authority for some $2.3 billion in state bonds for capital construction projects on a 43-1 vote, with Dansel the only no vote.

To break the impasse over delays to I-1351 last week, Senate Republicans had offered and Democrats had rejected a one-year delay that would have been limited to this year’s seniors. Asked why Republicans accepted a longer delay, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler said the two packages were similar and “you give and take in these things.”

But Schoesler called this year’s extended session, which is expected to end by this afternoon, a historic one that saw record increases in state spending for schools, unprecedented reductions in college tuition, and improvements in mental health laws, new standards for oil trains, expansions in early learning programs and an overhaul of the state’s legal marijuana systems. All accomplished without a general tax increase.

“I think the public’s going to agree that no general tax increase is a good thing,” he said.

The House is scheduled to vote today on the delay to the biology assessment test, as well as the list of projects and the bonds connected with the 11.9 cent gasoline tax already approved by both chambers. Once those are complete, the Legislature is expected to adjourn for the year.