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Washington Legislature opens with conciliatory words, but school-funding task force derails on party lines

A Washington State Patrol honor guard marches through the Senate during opening ceremonies Monday in Olympia. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
A Washington State Patrol honor guard marches through the Senate during opening ceremonies Monday in Olympia. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

OLYMPIA – In a clear sign that Washington may face a long and contentious legislative session, leaders called Monday for bipartisan cooperation. But a panel that spent months studying the biggest issue of 2017 – how much to spend on public schools – deadlocked along party lines, failing to agree on any recommendations.

After being elected to his ninth term as speaker or co-speaker of the House, Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, urged new members of both parties to work together to solve the state’s problems.

The House has 19 new representatives, including Republican Mike Volz of Spokane.

“We reject the notion that there are conflicting regions or cultures across the state,” Chopp told House members after they were sworn in.

Chopp ticked off what he considers major accomplishments from recent years, including more money for early education and health care and increases to the minimum wage. Democrats applauded vigorously while many Republicans sat quietly.

His GOP counterpart, Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, of Snohomish, echoed Chopp’s encouraging words, saying members should set aside personal agendas and the tactics of the past campaign season.

“Now it’s time to govern,” he said. “Let’s do right by the people who sent us here.”

But just three hours before the House and Senate opened with flags and fanfare, the Joint Education Funding Task Force had tried to wrap up seven months of hearings, studies and number-crunching by producing recommendations to jump-start lawmakers’ debate on major changes to public schools. Under the law that set up the task force last year, they were to have the recommendations by the first day of the 2017 session.

When it came time for that vote, however, Republicans refused to support recommendations by Democrats that the Legislature look at major changes in school salaries and tax increases to come up with as much as $7 billion over the next four years.

Democrats refused to vote for less specific “guiding principles” suggested by Republicans that contained no recommendations.

All motions failed on 4-4 ties.

Republicans said they needed some more data on differences among the state’s 295 school districts that won’t be available until Feb. 1, and they shouldn’t make recommendations that could affect the budget without that information.

The state Supreme Court, which is holding the Legislature in contempt for not providing adequate money for public schools, could hold lawmakers to those budget recommendations, Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said.

Democrats accused them of shirking their responsibility because the law that set up the task force clearly calls for recommendations.

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said the task force had a chance to include Democratic recommendations as a minority report, but Republican members wouldn’t even agree to that: “These are excuses to avoid doing the hard work,” Billig said.

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