OLYMPIA – The Legislature moved closer to deciding how to spend extra money and provide tax relief over the next 16 months as separate spending plans moved through each chamber Friday.
On a party-line vote, the Senate passed its supplement to the 2017-19 operating budget, approving nearly $1 billion more for public schools, mostly for increased teacher salaries that would bring the state in line with a Supreme Court decision that the delay lawmakers approved last year didn’t meet their constitutional obligation.
That budget has no new taxes and offers a $431 million cut in state property taxes next year. Property owners around the state are seeing higher taxes as a result of a change the Legislature approved last June that raises the state levy to pay for public schools. Local school district levies are scheduled to go down next year, but until then property owners are facing higher bills for 2018. (Editor’s note: Earlier versions of this post used an outdated number for the amount of the property tax cut.)
Senate Republicans took the unusual step of proposing a completely separate budget, with a much larger property tax cut that would show up later this year. Democrats have argued there are constitutional and logistical problems with providing the tax relief this year.
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said the Democratic spending plan is more than the usual “modest update” of a supplemental budget. “With this budget, we take care of two of the biggest challenges our state faces, ample funding for education and adequate support for mental and behavioral health,” she said in a news release.
Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, called the Democrats’ property tax relief “underwhelming” and said they should also offer tax relief to manufacturers. Democrats should look at the GOP alternative budget “and come up with a better final product worthy of bipartisan support,” he said in a news release after the vote.
The House took up its own supplemental spending plan, and even though representatives went home for the night without passing it, they were closer to the Senate than when they began the day.
That’s because they approved a significant rewrite of the budget as far as spending on public schools. Earlier this week Democratic leaders released a budget that did not comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling on teacher and staff salaries, leaving in place a partial increase starting this September and the fill raise in September 2019.
They wrote a budget that addressed other priorities, they said, with more money for special education, more counselors in elementary and middle schools and help for schools having trouble reducing the class sizes in kindergarten through Grade 3. It also had more money for mental health programs and student financial aid.
Friday, however, they added nearly $1 billion for the school salaries and made a series of adjustments in education and other programs to cover that.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, said the change was made in an effort to “check the box” on the last element in the court’s landmark ruling on school funding, and get past the controversy.
The House budget also relies on a new capital gains tax, which requires a separate vote on its own bill. Money raised by that tax would continue property tax relief the supplemental proposes for 2019 and 2020 by using some of the extra tax revenue the state is collecting from the strong economy. The Senate budget does not include a capital gains tax, and Rolfes said she did not anticipate passing a new tax when the state is collecting more revenue than it expected.
The debate on some 57 amendments lasted for hours as night wore on and snow began collecting; some members began leaving and the House finished all the amendments then put off a final vote on its budget until Monday.
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