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Legislature stumbles on classroom size initiative

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A teacher with her students

The state government has a $2 billion problem, and the Washington Senate foundered on fixing it in efforts that extended into this morning.

Meanwhile, the House stalled on the final piece of a $16.1 billion transportation projects package Tuesday and this morning.

The Senate’s loose end is delaying implementation on Initiative 1351’s $2 billion biennial costs from 2015-2017 to 2019-2021. Last fall, Washington’s voters passed I-1351, which mandated 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 extra class size reduction work would cost an extra $2 billion in 2015-2017, which the state currently does not have.

The Senate could not muster the two-thirds majority required to approve that four-year delay in the initiative’s implementation. The magic number of votes is 33.

“If we don’t pass this bill, we have a $2 billion hole. … If we have a $2 billion hole, we have to find a way to fill that hole,” said Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond and the Senate Republicans’ budget chief.

The House’s loose end is approving the bonds needed to help pay for the Legislature’s new $16.1 billion, 16-year transportation package. Because bonds are involved, the House needs 60 percent approval for the bill to pass, which hasn’t been achieved yet. (An earlier story on the House action is here.)

Tuesday’s high point was Gov. Jay Inslee signing a $38.2 billion 2015-2017 main budget 21 minutes before midnight, which was when the state government would otherwise have partly shut down due to the lack of an official biennial budget. About 26,000 state employees dodged being furloughed today. Inslee also signed a $3.9 billion capital projects budget, which included $200 million to build 500 Grade K-3 classrooms to help the state meet the court’s order to reduce teacher-student ratios in those grades.

But Tuesday and Wednesday morning saw two high-level handshake agreements partly go to hell. The minority Democrats in the Senate and the minority Republicans in the House usually watch helplessly as the two majority caucuses pass bills over their objections. But this week, both minority caucuses took advantage of the fact that the super-majority requirements meant that their votes are actually needed to pass some legislation.

And the two minority caucuses used that new clout to try to force the two majority caucuses to give them concessions in return for enough votes to provide the super-majorities. The result was a tidal wave of distrust swamping the Capitol Dome.

Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island and a member of the Senate Democratic caucus, said that the House majority Democrats and the Senate majority Republicans did not talk to their minority caucuses until Sunday or Monday to brief them on the high-level handshake agreements. And the minority caucuses had little or no input in the handshake agreements. Consequently, the two minority caucuses felt ambushed with last-minute bills that they did not have time to study, while their votes were simultaneously sought to make the super-majorities work, he said.

The House had passed the delay-I-1351 bill 72-26 on Monday—breaking the required 67-vote threshold. In the Senate, if all 26 members of the Majority Coalition Caucus of 25 Republicans and one Democrat supported the bill delaying the I-1351, it would still need seven minority Democratic votes to hit the two-thirds threshold of 33.

On Monday, the Senate Republicans asked the Senate Democrats for the extra seven votes to pass the bill. The 23 Democrats replied they were not sure if they had seven people willing to delay I-1351, but they would look into it. At the same time, a significant part of the Democratic caucus wants to keep I-1351 intact and on schedule to start working in 2015-2017.

On Tuesday, the Republican and Democratic Senate caucuses each lost the attendance of two members due to non-legislative obligations. The Republicans approached the Democrats again, asking for nine votes to obtain a super-majority.

Some Democrats said they still did not like acting so fast on an I-1351 proposal that they had just seen. With the main 2015-2017 budget going into effect at 11:39 p.m. Tuesday, they noted, the state no longer faces a partial shutdown when the 2015-2017 biennium began today. And 27 days are left in the Legislature’s third 30-day overtime session in which to discuss I-1351 proposals, they said.

Some Senate Democrats want to pass a stalled House bill to overhaul the end-of-course testing requirements for high school graduation. That assessments bill became notorious because almost 2,000 seniors failed the biology portion, which jeopardized their chances at graduating this summer. The proposed overhaul tackle a lot of the testing requirements, as well as allowing the 2,000 seniors who failed the biology exam  to still graduate.

The House passed that bill three times in the first, second and third 30-day special sessions — the last time by a 92-6 margin. Each time, the Senate Republicans chose not to take any action on the bill, killing it.

In late spring, Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island and one of the Republicans’ education issues leaders, has expressed concern about overhauling the new testing system, worrying that the changes might weaken educational standards in the state’s high schools. The Senate Republicans have backed him on that stance.

On Tuesday, the Senate Democrats told the Republicans some of them might vote to delay I-1351 if they could get the stalled assessment bill passed.

That infuriated the Republicans.

“An ultimatum on the final day of the session is not the way to get a surgical fix,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. Schoesler contended the Republicans were ambushed with the proposed vote swap, and they should have received more time to figure out how to tweak the assessments bill. Schoesler called the Democrats’ proposed bill swap “extortion.”

The two sides spent most of Tuesday sticking to their positions — keeping the I-1351 bill on hold. At 3:15 a.m. today, the Republicans offered one tweak on the assessments bill to enable the 2,000 kids who failed biology to graduate. The two sides faced each other behind the scenes for another two hours before beginning the floor debate on the bill.

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle opposed the four-year delay in implementing I-1351. He argued that the House and Senate leaders never pondered how to implement I-1351 and its $2 billion biennial price during the 105-day regular session or during the subsequent two special sessions.

“It was just assumed we wouldn’t do it. If we kick it down four years, it’s obvious that it won’t happen,” Frockt said.

Hill and Senate Democratic budget chief Sen. James Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, argued that no legislator — even those who want to keep I-1351 intact and functioning in 2015-2017 — ever introduced legislation to study the matter. The caucus leaders did not instruct the GOP or Democratic budget writers to include I-1351’s $2 billion in the 2015-2017 budget considerations.

Hargrove noted that it took the Legislature almost six months to create $200 million in new revenue for 2015-2o17, arguing that raising $2 billion in new revenue would be almost impossible with the current culture of the deeply divided Legislature. Also, the state's social safety nets would be greatly endangered by any efforts to raise $2 billion in I-1351 money, he argued.

After one more senator left the Capitol Dome, the Republicans decided to gamble that they could get 33 votes out of the remaining 44 senators. The final tally at 6:10 a.m. today was 27 senators supporting the four-year delay and 17 opposing it — falling to reach the required 33 votes.

“Both sides were tired, and both were melting down,” Ranker said.

At the last second, Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, switched his pro-delay vote to an anti-delay vote. This is a parliamentary maneuver that puts Fain on the prevailing side on the floor vote. That gives him the right to call for a revote on the same bill at a later date. The Senate will next meet at noon Friday.

Hill said: “I think there is a compromise to be made.”

  

About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government. He can be followed on Twitter: @johnstang_8