OLYMPIA — With minutes to spare before midnight Sunday, Washington lawmakers approved a new, two-year state operating budget and reached a key deal on school district tax levies.
Those votes allowed legislators to finish the 105-day budget-writing session — which occurs every other year — on schedule for the first time in a decade.
It didn’t come easily. A special session appeared possible Sunday night, with House and Senate Democrats unable to agree on a policy to lift the limits on the amount of money school districts could raise through local property-tax levies.
Those rates were capped and lowered as part of a 2017 court-ordered K-12 school funding plan that also boosted state funding for basic education. School districts across Washington have since struggled to adjust.
Ultimately, lawmakers reached a deal to pass a version of the levy proposal, Senate Bill 5313.
For school districts with fewer than 40,000 full-time students, the bill would allow local levies at the lesser of $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value or $2,500 per student, according to a news release by Senate Democrats.
For districts that exceed 40,000 full-time students, the legislation would allow levies at the lesser of $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value or $3,000 per student.
The bill also authorizes state funding known as local effort assistance for districts getting less than $1,500 per pupil with a levy rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, the news release says. The legislation additionally increases the local effort assistance rate for qualifying districts.
Republicans opposed raising the levy caps. They argued that boosting the amount of money school districts could raise locally would set the state up for a return to court over education funding. After the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision, the justices for years took the state to task for failing to fully fund basic K-12 education costs.
Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, chair of the House Appropriations Committee and one of the Democratic budget writers, said he didn’t believe the legislation would expose the state to another school-funding lawsuit.
“I don’t think we’re going to be back in court, but I do think that it is not a perfected solution,” Ormsby said Monday.
“We’ll learn from it, we’ll see what impacts it has on districts,” he added later.
With a deal on the levy bill announced around 10:30 p.m. Sunday night, lawmakers moved swiftly to finish their work by midnight. That included approving Washington’s new, two-year $52.4 billion state budget.
The 2019-21 operating budget funds an overhaul of the mental-health system, approves raises for state workers and boosts spending on education programs and wildfire suppression efforts.
It’s funded by more than $830 million in new revenue over two years from a series of new and higher taxes.
Republicans protested both the taxes and the votes taken on them, which in many cases occurred on short notice or late at night, a move they said didn’t allow people to understand them properly.
“Those tax bills are where the incentive for deception is the highest,” House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm said Monday. “Because it’s hard to pass them when people know who’s the target.”