Setting the stage for likely-lengthy negotiations over the state budget, the Washington Senate passed a bill Monday that would effectively send Initiative 1351 back to voters this November.
Passed in late 2014, I-1351 calls for dramatically reduced teacher-student ratios in Grades K-12. It would also add roughly $2 billion in education expenses in 2015-2017. Gov. Jay Inslee and both parties in Legislature have cringed at that obligation, because no revenue source has been identified to raise the money.
The Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate's budget proposals both look to tie meeting I-1351's obligations for Grades K-3 with their efforts to comply with a 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling that requires improvements in teacher-student ratios in those grades. Both sides, however, want to essentially put off I-1351's obligations for Grades 4-12 in 2015-2017, because no money is available.
The House's 2015-2017 proposal does not address I-1351 further. The just-passed Senate bill includes a referendum clause that amounts to sending I-1351 back to the voters in November to confirm they want the additional $2 billion per biennium obligation.
Speaking of I-1351, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said, "It's pretty clear at this point that it is not affordable." I-1351 "was built on false promises and sold on false advertising," contended Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane.
While some minority Democrats also believe that I-1351 is not affordable, all but one voted against the Republican bill to send the measure back to the voters.
Sen. James Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, argued that if voters approve the measure again, the Legislature will be hit with a full $2 billion obligation that might have to be dealt with immediately. Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, contended that last year's voters were aware of the price tag. "The people very well understood what small class sizes mean," he said.
The Senate voted 27-22 to send the bill to the House. Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, crossed the aisle to vote with the Republicans.
Meanwhile, the Senate voted 26-23 along caucus lines to approve a $38 billion operating budget proposal for the 2015-2017 biennium that features a significant drop in state university tuitions and no new taxes. The state’s current 2013-2015 budget is about $34 billion. The Senate Republicans’ $38 billion has $1.3 billion earmarked for the court-ordered work in Grades K-3. The Senate budget raises $40 million by letting 15 tax breaks expire. The Republicans plan to pay for the K-3 obligations without new revenue sources.
Last Thursday, the House, by a 51-47 party line vote, passed a $38.8 billion budget proposal with $1.4 billion earmarked for improvements in Grades K-3 ordered by the Washington Supreme Court. The House budget envisions financing some of its costs through a new capital gains tax; a hike in the business-and-occupation tax paid by services firms; and closing seven tax breaks.
Senate Democrats criticized the GOP budget for trimming already-negotiated salary increases for state employees; for taking money from non-operating funds to pay for operating fund work; and for trimming at least $150 million needed for expected growth in social services obligations.
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, praised the Senate budget proposal. "The budget is balanced without job-killing manufacturing tax increases. ... Low tuition is the best financial aid you can have," Ericksen said.
All this sets up behind-the-scenes negotiations between the House Democrats and Senate Republicans that are expected to last weeks, if not months.