Legislature starts new week in same old mode

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Washington State Capitol

Washington’s Legislature is locked deeply into triple overtime because of a last-minute negotiating showdown over Initiative 1351 and a bill to revamp high school graduation testing.

The feud appears to have caused a legislative deadlock with no clear-cut resolution in sight.

On Monday, as yet another legislative week began, neither side could provide a clue on how fast this impasse could be solved — other than each side saying it wants to resolve it as soon as possible. The Legislature is now 10 days into its third 30-day overtime session.

The Senate’s minority Democrats and majority Republicans confirmed Monday they have extended feelers to start talks on this latest deadlock. But both sides are currently in no-budging modes. At stake is an unexpected $2 billion hole in the state’s one-week-old $38.2 billion budget for 2015-2017.

Most Senate Democrats want to pass a bill overhauling school testing and showed no willingness to step back from that stance Monday. Their clout is that at least seven minority Democrats are needed to reach the 33-vote threshold to change the terms of I-1351, which mandates smaller class sizes in many grade levels, in its first two years. Until the testing bill passes, the minority Democrats said, they won’t try to convince any of their members to delay implementing I-1351's mandates for reducing school class sizes.

But the Senate majority Republican caucus said Monday that passing any version of the testing bill is a non-starter this session.

Last fall, Washington’s voters passed I-1351, which mandates smaller class sizes in Grades 4-12 on top of the Supreme Court’s 2102 call to improve teacher-student ratios in Grades K-3. That additional class-size reduction work would cost an extra $2 billion in 2015-2017, which the state doesn't have.

Under one scenario, the $2 billion hole could end up as an accounting blip to be resolved in early 2016. Or under another scenario, the hole could signal the Washington Supreme Court later this month that the Legislature does not have its act together on providing the legally required funding to improve teacher-student ratios. And that might provoke the court to levy yet-to-be-determined punishments against the Legislature later this summer.

This impasse is the collision of an I-1351 bill zipping through the Legislature at warp speed in eight days versus the three months that the testing overhaul bill took to bog down in the Senate slog.

The testing overhaul bill by Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Olympia, has passed the House three times in the Legislature’s three specials sessions by overwhelming, bipartisan margins —the last being 92-6. Reykdal’s House bill would overhaul the end-of-course testing requirements for high school graduation. The proposed overhaul tackles a lot of the testing requirements, as well as allowing the 2,000 seniors who failed a new biology exam this year to still graduate.

The Senate Republicans killed the bill twice in committee and strongly oppose its use as a last-minute bargaining chip. “We are not willing to vote to lower standards for our kids,” said Senate Republican Majority Floor Leader Joe Fain, R-Auburn, on Monday.

The Democrats say the testing system leaves too much at stake with a handful of one-time standardized tests.

I-1351 has haunted the Legislature since the beginning of 2015. Almost everyone assumed I-1351’s implementation would be either delayed or eliminated by the Legislature. But a long list of contentious budget issues kept I-1351 on a back burner for months.

On June 22, a bill to delay implementing I-1351 by four years was introduced in the House, and got a public hearing later that week. The Democratic-led House passed the measure 72-26 on June 29. The bill was introduced on the Senate floor on June 30, but it failed early on the morning of July 1 to capture the constitutionally required 33 Senate votes to change an initiative’s language in its first two years. The Senate vote was 27-17 in favor of delaying I-1351.

Since June 30, Senate Republicans and Democrats have pointed accusatory fingers at each other. Charges of bad-faith political gamesmanship on both sides have been rampant.

The Senate Democrats’ position unfolds like this.

There was no Senate public hearing on the I-1351. Seventeen individual Democrats oppose the bill to delay the initiative's implementation while not having any input on mapping it out. Everyone, including the Senate Republicans, just assumed some of the those 17 Democrats would vote against their beliefs on a major bill they had seen for a few hours. Consequently, they wanted the testing-overhaul bill passed in order to vote against their beliefs on the I-1351 bill.

The Senate Republicans’ position is that the minority Democratic caucus’ leaders stood silently at a June 28 press conference as Gov. Jay Inslee and legislators announced a bipartisan agreement on the entire $38.2 billion budget, including how to deal with I-1351. The Senate’s Democratic leaders did not protest that they were unhappy with the I-1351 matter. Also other than one Democratic bill that died quickly in a GOP-controlled Senate committee, the 17 pro-I-1351 Democrats never tried to deal with implementing it during the previous first five and a half months of legislative sessions. Finally, Republicans painted the proposed swap of a testing overhaul for I-1531 votes on June 30 as an unfair, last-minute surprise outside of the parameters of the overall budget compromise.

Fain drew up a comparison in which he said the Republicans in both chambers agreed to back off a bill that the Senate passed this year to open all state collecting bargaining sessions to the public. If the Republicans resurrected that collective bargaining bill to obtain a last-minute budget deal, the public howling would be as great as the current howling by editorial boards and Republicans over the Democrats' proposed tying of the I-1351 delay to the testing overhaul, Fain said.

There's a second issue also hanging up the Legislature. On June 30, the House Republicans tried to require that an 11.9 cents per gallon gas-tax hike be sent to a public referendum late June 30. That proposed amendment to a large transportation package was outside of a handshake agreement between the two parties. The House Democrats defeated the proposed amendment. All this stretched out the House action by several hours — leaving an unresolved loose end: passage of a bill authorizing bonds to help put the 16-year, $16 billion transportation projects package into action.

That bond bill still needs 59 votes — 60 percent of the House — to pass. And that means at least five of the Republicans who defied the handshake agreement to vote for the gas-tax referendum are now needed to support the bonds. The House staggered into adjournment at 3:30 a.m. July 1 without voting on the bonds.

The transportation issue has received a fraction of the headlines as the similar I-1351 impasse.

In some people's view, the Legislature could punt on the I-1351 dispute until the 2016 session without falling afoul of the initiative's requirement.

Whether that would be a wise move is up in the air.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8