EYE ON OLYMPIA: Lawmakers approve levy cliff measure but school funding still ahead

OLYMPIA — Both houses of the Legislature have passed a measure extending the deadline for a reduction in the amount of money school districts can collect via local property tax levies.

All three District 24 legislators — Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim; Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles; and Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, voted for the measure.

District 24 covers all of Clallam and Jefferson counties and a part of Grays Harbor County.

The bill addresses what lawmakers have called the “levy cliff” and it now awaits Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature.

If the two houses had not agreed, school districts faced a reduction in the amount they could collect through local levies starting Jan. 1, 2018. The new measure pushes off that deadline to 2019.

The Democratic-led House had passed the bill in January, waiting on the Republican-led Senate to pass a companion bill. Senate leaders had wanted to use the levy cliff deadline as leverage for passage of a new Supreme Court-ordered McCleary public education funding bill.

“Today, the first bill we passed in the House — to fix the levy cliff so our local schools wouldn’t lose funding — came back from the Senate with minor changes, so we were happy to send it to the governor to be signed into law,” said Tharinger, chair of the Capital Budget Committee. “There’s more work to do, but this is great news for our schools.”

Van De Wege said he believed the bill’s sudden success with the Senate Republicans was sparked by pressure not just from Democrats and school districts, but constituents who were concerned about the loss of programs and educators.

Van De Wege said he was aware of school districts identifying and notifying personnel who could have been laid off. Actual “pink slips” had not been mailed, he said.

All three District 24 legislators had been pressing the point that without a levy cliff fix, local districts would have had to start reworking budgets, and cutting programs and staff.

According to a District 24 news release, a number of area school districts were saved from potentially painful cuts: Port Townsend School District ($487,848), Chimacum School District ($530,571), Quillayute Valley School District ($65,381), Cape Flattery School District ($173,216) and the Port Angeles School District ($412,943).

Budget discussions

Now that the deadline for the two houses to pass bills to the other has passed, Tharinger said the session will change focus to finding compromises on the three major budgets:

• The state operating budget, which pays for public schools, universities, courts, prisons, seniors, the disabled, health care and early learning.

• The transportation budget, including ferries and the State Patrol.

• The capital budget, which builds schools, colleges, parks and other state construction projects.

“The biggest job we still have left is fully funding our public schools,” Tharinger said. “That includes paying for basic education, such as teacher salaries, and it includes building new schools to reduce overcrowded class rooms.”

The Senate Republicans are scheduled to come out with their budget proposals around March 20, Van De Wege said. The House Democrats will follow with their budget proposals later that week.

Van De Wege said he expects the Senate Republicans’ budget to sweep up “all available money” — including a “small number” for public education but he does not think that will include a tax increase.

Protecting police

Van De Wege voted in favor of SB 5280 last week, a measure which would add protections for police officers who are targeted with threats and violence.

The measure would add “assault in the third degree involving a law enforcement officer” to the list of crimes that might constitute harassment, said the state senator.

“Their job is difficult enough as it is and requires full concentration without having to worry about being targets,” Van De Wege said. “When our law enforcement officials are undermined, it undercuts their ability to protect the public.”

Distractions while driving

Both houses approved measures last week which would prohibit distracted driving and all three District 24 legislators voted in favor of them.

HB 1371 was approved 52-46; SB 5289 was also approved, 36-13. Reconciling the two measures lies ahead before a final vote and a trip to the governor’s office.

Van De Wege said the state’s original cellphone ban prohibited individuals from holding a cell phone while driving. Technology has changed, though, and it does not prohibit searching the internet.

“If you look at the numbers, texting while driving is now almost as big of a threat on our roads as drunk driving,” said Chapman, a former law enforcement officer who serves on the Transportation Committee.

Virtual town hall

Tharinger, Chapman and Van De Wege will host a telephone town hall at 6 p.m. Tuesday to give constituents a chance to ask questions, offer ideas and get an update about issues important to Legislative District 24.

Most households in the district will receive a call at about 6 pm. All you have to do is stay on the line to participate. Press *3 on your phone at any time to ask a question.

Those who want to participate but who do not get a call can dial 877-229-8493 and use ID Code 116281.

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Assistant Managing Editor Mark Swanson can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55450, or mswanson@peninsuladailynews.com.

Halfway: Bills alive, dead or signed in state Legislature