EYE ON OLYMPIA: State Senate fiscal cliff gambit falls short

OLYMPIA — Democrats attempted Friday to take advantage of the departure of Senate Republican Brian Dansel to move on “fiscal cliff” relief for public school districts.

The senator from Republic in Ferry County resigned last Tuesday to take a job as a special assistant to the U.S. secretary of Agriculture.

His departure left the Senate evenly split, 24-24.

Sen. Kevin Van Wege, D-Sequim, said Friday the body was working on passage of a companion bill to one passed by the House of Representatives last week. Senate Democrats were counting on at least one Republican vote to give them the majority for the bill.

As written, the bill would extend the ability of local school districts to set levies for one more year until the state can provide full funding of education as required by the Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision.

The extension would affect every school district on the Olympic Peninsula except for Sequim, said Van De Wege, who, with Reps. Steve Tharinger and Mike Chapman, represents Legislative District 24, which covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County.

According to The Associated Press, Democrats had hoped for a ruling from Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, the presiding officer of the chamber, that would have allowed them to change the chamber rules so they could pull the bill out of committee and put it on the floor calendar.

When that ruling didn’t go in their favor, they tried another procedural path to get the bill to the floor, but one of their members had left the Capitol and they didn’t have enough people to succeed.

Republicans’ McCleary plan

Senate Republicans on Friday released an education funding plan that seeks to replace local school levies with a statewide uniform rate earmarked for schools.

Lawmakers have already put more than $2 billion toward the school funding issue since the McCleary 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 GOP-proposed levy changes are expected to bring in $2 billion a year for education, and the state would also spend an additional $700 million per year to backfill to ensure that each school district has $12,500 per student. Republicans say they can pay for the backfill with existing resources.

The Republican plan also increases the minimum beginning salary for teachers to $45,000 from $35,700, and creates a new housing allowance of up to $10,000 for teachers and staff in high cost-of-living areas. The plan also prohibits teacher strikes.

Their proposal also addresses the “levy cliff.”

The whole plan put forth by Republicans, except for the levy deadline delay bill, would be subject to a referendum by voters in November.

Van De Wege said the Senate GOP plan for education funding would be “beneficial to the children of the state and my legislative district.”

He acknowledged that the proposal would be “fundamentally different than the way we fund education” and “going to mean a pretty long session.”

The state senator added that there were many nuances for legislators to figure out, including the Republicans’ idea of removing teachers’ ability to strike.

Van De Wege said he supports binding arbitration to resolve labor disputes between teachers and districts. It would, he said, be “good for schools and teachers.”

Simple majorities

Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, signed onto HB-1778 this week, a measure that could make it easier for school districts to get bonds approved via a simple majority vote.

Currently, districts seeking the passage of a bond need a supermajority, 60 percent.

School districts in Port Angeles and Sequim have been stymied in recent years by the supermajority rule, falling just short of the 60 percent mark.

Chapman said the rationale is simple: “We can reduce taxes, enact initiatives and elect our governmental leaders with a simple majority vote. … The time is now for the Legislature to approve this common-sense reform.”

Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, said he supports the idea.

Too often, said Tharinger, a relatively small number of people can prevent a school district from reaching the 60 percent mark.

He said that generally, he favors supermajorities only for constitutional amendments.

Earthquake, disaster planning

Chapman is also a co-sponsor on HB-1703, which would have school districts hire professional planners to look at facilities to determine how well they would hold up to earthquakes.

The resulting reports, said Chapman, would “raise awareness so it’s on peoples’ mind when they vote for school bonds.”

He also argued that school buildings are not just for teachers and children. The buildings, he said, are where communities look for shelter when disaster strikes.

Chapman said he had school principals in his office Friday who voiced support for the measure.

He also reasoned that new school buildings could be built with cross-laminated timber, which some Clallam officials have lately held out as a product that could help revive the flagging forest products industry on the Olympic Peninsula.

Busy with budget

Tharinger added that he spends long days working on the state’s capital budget and doesn’t often have much time to look at other issues.

He chairs the House Capital Budget Committee, which is right now reviewing the different needs from various state agencies.

In particular, he noted the proposed replacement of the U.S. Highway 101 bridge over the Elwha River.

“We’re making some progress in that area,” he said.

The committee is also looking at requests for dental service facilities in rural areas.

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Assistant Managing Editor Mark Swanson can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55450, or [email protected].