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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Washington Senate agrees to task force to seek public school fix

Members of the Washington Senate monitor the close vote on a bill to establish a task force to meet state obligations to public schools Tuesday in Olympia. It passed 26-23 Tuesday. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
Members of the Washington Senate monitor the close vote on a bill to establish a task force to meet state obligations to public schools Tuesday in Olympia. It passed 26-23 Tuesday. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Under a daily fine of $100,000 for failing to meet the state’s constitutional obligations to public schools, a sharply divided Senate approved a plan Tuesday.

The plan: Set up a task force so next year’s Legislature can approve a plan.

On a 26-23 vote, the Senate passed a bill to establish the Education Funding Task Force that would recommend how local school districts will stop using money from their local property taxes to cover basic education expenses that the Supreme Court says are the state’s responsibility. Those recommendations would go to the 2017 Legislature, which would act on them by the end of that year’s session.

The bill drew fire from some of the chamber’s more conservative and more liberal members. Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, called it “the great bipartisan punt of 2016,” an attempt to satisfy a Supreme Court ruling that the Legislature had been shirking its responsibility to fund public schools adequately.

Baumgartner called that a flawed decision.

“The key to improving education in this state is not pumping more money into a broken system,” he said.

Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said the bill acknowledges lawmakers “have nothing better to say than we’re going to do something about this, next year.”

Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Bellevue, called it the legislative equivalent of “telling the court ‘The check is in the mail.’ ”

Last year, the court said the Legislature was in contempt of court for not providing a plan for state money to replace the local tax money that many school districts use for some basic education expenses. It levied a $100,000-per-day fine, which remains in effect. Lawmakers don’t know if this proposal will get them out of contempt and end the fines.

Even the bill’s supporters were not enthusiastic. Sen. Ann Rivers, R-Vancouver, the bill’s sponsor, acknowledged it was not a perfect bill, and legislators had much work left to do.

“There’s not any one bill that’s going to address every problem we have,” she said. “This is a step.”

Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, called it a commitment to keep working on a solution. “Lots of legislation we move through here is not perfect,” she said.

The bill is similar to legislation that already passed the House, so a final version is likely headed to Gov. Jay Inslee in the coming weeks. Inslee called the vote “great news” that continues the next steps toward meeting financial obligations to schools.

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