State Senate passes school levy bill to help districts

By Rachel La Corte

The Associated Press

OLYMPIA — The Senate has passed a measure delaying a deadline for a reduction in the amount of money school districts can collect through local property tax levies, something school superintendents have said they need as they ready their budgets.

After negotiations that involved the governor’s office, the chamber passed the measure on a bipartisan 48-1 vote Wednesday, and the bill now heads to the House, which passed its own measure in January.

School districts face a reduction in the amount they can collect through local levies starting next year, but the measure passed by lawmakers pushes that deadline off until 2019.

The levy issue is part of a broader discussion surrounding education funding, an issue for which the state is currently being held in contempt by the state Supreme Court.

Lawmakers are working to comply with a 2012 ruling that they must fully fund the state’s basic education system. Lawmakers have already put more than $2 billion toward the issue since the ruling, but the biggest piece remaining of the court order is figuring out how much the state must provide for teacher salaries.

School districts currently pay a big chunk of those salaries with local property-tax levies.

The House bill had stalled in the Republican-led Senate, which had included the delay within the GOP’s overall education proposal that passed out of the Senate last month.

Republicans had argued that by passing the levy-fix bill separate from an overall plan, it would remove the pressure from lawmakers to finish the overall plan. Democrats had argued that the levy fix was needed first as school districts start planning their individual budgets.

The compromise bill that passed on the Senate floor Wednesday night include two changes that are pieces from the Senate Republican education funding plan: Starting next year, school districts would need to keep state and local funds in different accounts, and, also starting next year, local levies would need to be submitted to and approved by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction before going to voters.

Republican Sen. Joe Fain said the accountability measures added to the bill are “an incredibly powerful step in protecting those dollars for those local purposes.”

“I believe this piece of legislation commits this chamber and this Legislature to the monumental but critical task of fully funding education this year,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Christine Rolfes said Democrats agreed with the changes in order to give their Republican colleagues more confidence that they would continue working toward a solution.

“It’s never been an issue for us to show our commitment,” she said. “We have been committed to solving the larger task at hand.”

But Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner, the lone no vote, expressed disappointment with the decision to move forward with the bill.

“Some people want to spike the football today,” he said. “This is punting the football.”

The court has said the state has until Sept. 1, 2018, to fully fund education. But the court ruled that the Legislature must have a detailed plan — including how to pay for it — before it adjourns this year.

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