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Senators take votes to wrap up longest legislative session

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The state Capitol

The deal held up.

Just enough Democrats changed their “no" votes to “yes” on Thursday to enable the Legislature to delay implementing Initiative I-1351's school class sizes by four years. In return, the Senate Republicans held to their agreement to delay end-of-course biology testing requirements for high school graduation by two years.

The I-1351 vote was 33-11 with five absent, meeting the two-thirds majority of the 49-member Senate needed to change the language of a public initiative within two years of its passage. On July 1, the Senate came up just shy of the two-thirds threshold. One of the votes against the delay was from Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, a supporter of the delay, who changed his vote at the last second to give him legal standing to call for a revote Thursday as a member of the prevailing side. The House had already passed that bill 72-26.

The Senate standoff set up some backroom dealmaking in which the Senate Democratic caucus agreed to switch enough votes in return for the Republicans allowing the biology testing requirement to be delayed by two years — a concept that the Senate GOP had vehemently opposed. Earlier the House passed a more sweeping version of the testing bill 92-6. The Senate passed a trimmed-down version on Thursday 39-5.

This also means the Senate’s work is done for the 2015 session. On Friday, the House is expected to pass the revamped testing bill plus two stalled long-range transportation projects bills.

That will end the 2015 legislative session after 178 days, including 13 days in its third 30-day overtime session. That makes this year's the longest legislative session in Washington’s history.

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

Democratic and Republican legislators did not like I-1351 because it did not provide a funding source for the $2 billion. Legislators assumed it would be delayed or nullified sometime during the 2015 session. But they kept I-1351 discussions on a back burner for most of the extended session while they tackled a long drawn-out state budget battle, which was the main reason the Legislature went into three extra special sessions. Consequently, the four-year-delay proposition first became public on June 22, and did not reach the Senate until June 30.

Getting a two-thirds vote in the House on June 29 was relatively easy. But most Senate Democrats wanted to implement I-1351 in 2015-2017. They felt they had been taken for granted, with others assuming that enough of them would automatically switch their votes. Consequently, they refused to provide the remaining votes needed to clear the two-thirds hurdle in the Senate without getting the biology exam concession in return.

That standoff would have added a new unfunded $2 billion obligation to the Legislature’s $38.2 billion main budget for 2015-2017. Thursday’s vote removed that $2 billion hole.

By delaying implementation of I-351 by four years, the Legislature could conceivably eliminate it with a simple majority in each chamber in the 2017 legislative session. The initiative will have been around long enough to be exempt from the two-thirds threshold.

Meanwhile, about 2,000 Washingtonian seniors who failed the end-of-course biology exam did not graduate, but they will after Gov. Jay Inslee signs the test-related bill. The House is expected to pass it Friday.

“Just not being able to graduate because of one test causes a lot of angst for students, family and friends, as well as for teachers and administrators. … There’s a lot hanging on one test,” said Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia.

I-1351 is the brainchild of the Washington Education Association, and it did not like delaying implementation for four years.

Legislators, said WEA president Kim Mead in a press release, “have somehow determined that it’s OK, for example, for 9-year-olds to continue to learn in some of the most crowded classes in the nation simply by virtue of being in the 4th grade and not in K through 3.”

  

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