The Senate should try again to bring the 2015-17 budget into balance by deferring implementation of Initiative 1351.
BY any measure, the accomplishments of the 2015 Washington Legislature are historic — record new investment in K-12 education and early learning, a boost in mental-health services, a long overdue transportation package and, stunningly, an actual reduction in public college tuition. A truly breathtaking effort of bipartisan leadership and give-and-take by lawmakers and the governor.
But don’t cue the parade just yet. The whole state has to wait for the Senate Democratic leadership to line up. Disappointingly, that group, led by Minority Leader Sharon Nelson of Maury Island and Deputy Leader Andy Billig of Spokane, reneged on a hard-won budget deal contingent on delaying the implementation of Initiative 1351. Confoundingly, both stood by the governor and their House and Senate counterparts at a June 27 news conference to announce a deal — before working to undermine it.
Sponsored by the Washington Education Association, I-1351 ostensibly was to reduce class sizes in all grades, but two-thirds of the cost goes to nonteaching personnel. The measure, which barely passed with 50.96 percent of the vote, came with no funding source. The powerful teachers union is fighting hard to ensure I-1351 — and its costly and ill-advised template for basic education — is not deferred.
The Senate Democratic leadership used this point of tension to press a measure easing school-test standards, and Republicans pushed back.
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After Gov. Jay Inslee signed the budget late Tuesday, ending the threat of a government shutdown, and as dawn approached early Wednesday, Democratic state senators sympathetic to the WEA refused to defer I-1351. In doing so, they failed to support the budget compromise reached by their budget negotiators. The vote to defer I-1351 failed, six votes shy of the two-thirds vote it needed. Six Democrats were willing to buck the WEA.
Angry and tired senators staggered out, leaving a $2 billion hole in a budget that otherwise should do great things for Washington state. Solving that puts in peril social services and higher education — yes, including those hard-won gains just made.
But it’s not too late. This special legislative session — the third overtime session — goes to the end of the month. The Senate should be able to take another vote and bring the budget into balance. While some senators suggest delaying a vote indefinitely would be just fine, the governor disagrees.
“I believe it is important for the Legislature to find a solution that results in a balanced budget sooner rather than later,” Inslee said in statement. “We are so close. I encourage legislators to complete their work.”
This disappointing attempt to sidetrack senators who had nearly finished the most education-friendly budget in memory doesn’t bode well for the bigger job that lies ahead: making structural changes to permanently improve school funding.”
House Democrats impressively found the wherewithal to buck the teachers union, passing the I-1351 suspension with a vote of 72-26.
State senators should reflect on whether they are truly free and independent of the WEA, which for too long has wagged the dog in Olympia and is now impeding bipartisan progress on fixing the school system’s unconstitutional inequities.
Then they need to go back to work and vote to defer I-1351 to finalize the budget work. Ignore the WEA’s call to renegotiate the budget to meet the union’s demands.
This disappointing attempt to sidetrack senators who had nearly finished the most education-friendly budget in memory doesn’t bode well for the bigger job that lies ahead: making structural changes to permanently improve school funding.
Let the July 1 meltdown also be a reminder of why this hard work cannot be done in the witching hour — it’s when dark forces are at play.