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Washington state House votes to extend schools’ taxing authority

UPDATED: Mon., Jan. 23, 2017

OLYMPIA – Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane, argues against extending extra taxing authority local school districts have been given. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA – Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane, argues against extending extra taxing authority local school districts have been given. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Washington’s 295 school districts would get an extra year to collect higher property taxes under the first bill to pass the full House this year.

On a 62-35 vote, lawmakers sent to the Senate a proposal that delays what school officials call the “levy cliff” – a drop in the districts’ temporary authority to impose a higher levy to cover some of the expenses for public schools. The Legislature gave districts that authority to levy an extra 4 percent in 2010 during the recession when state support to public schools dropped.

Since that time, the state Supreme Court has ruled the Legislature must provide more money to the districts to cover the costs of “basic education,” which includes most salaries, supplies and transportation costs.

Lawmakers are facing a deadline to comply with that ruling this session, and if they agree on a solution that money could cover the costs local districts are now funding with the extra property tax money. But there’s no guarantee they will pass a bill in both chambers by the time school boards must approve budgets in May.

The extra authority, which for many districts provides millions of dollars, is set to expire on Jan. 1, 2018. The bill approved Monday delays that for one year.

That extra year would keep school districts from wasting time preparing two budgets, one without the money from the extra levy authority and one with money that would come from levies or whatever solution the Legislature reaches, Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, said.

Some Republicans said it was too soon to approve an extension of that extra levy authority, arguing that could take the pressure off the Legislature to develop a comprehensive plan for public schools. If negotiations stall later in the session, they’d be willing to vote for the delay.

“Let’s roll up our sleeves and get a long-term solution,” Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane, said. “Rushing it through so early sends a poor message.”

But House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said he found it ironic that Republicans, who have yet to produce a plan for meeting the Supreme Court’s demands on funding public schools, were reluctant to extend the levy authority.

“They haven’t offered anything,” he said.

Although the bill came out of the House Appropriations Committee on a strict party-line vote, at the end of the floor debate a dozen Republicans joined all Democrats in approving the bill. Deputy Republican Leader Joel Kretz, of Wauconda, said some legislators are getting pressure from school officials in their home districts who are worried about the Legislature not approving a school plan before school budgets are due.

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