Democrats secure ‘levy cliff’ bill’s passage in legislature

Democrats have argued to extend the “levy cliff” throughout the 2017 session, and on Thursday they accomplished that goal.

Their bill passed the House and Senate and will head to the governor’s office to be signed.

At the heart of the “levy cliff” issue is the mismatching timelines for lawmakers and school districts on their respective funding and budgeting processes. Lawmakers across the aisle agree finding a way to fully fund education depends on political compromises, which are notoriously protracted. Leaders in Olympia in both parties have said they intend to pass a funding reform policy by the deadline a federal court set for them (by 2018), but even so, that deadline is out of sync with school districts’ budgeting schedules. Even if lawmakers agree on a plan before the scheduled end of session (and some argue this session could go longer than expected) that’s still going to drag out past districts’ budget deadlines.

So Democrats have argued for a levy cliff extension, which would ensure schools could rely on the old funding mechanisms they have in place, so they could budget as-normal, and not plan for a “worst case scenario.” Democrats and some districts have argued that without the extension, they’d have to issue pink slips.

But, Republicans pushed against the extension, because they suggested it was a way to delay fully funding education.

On Thursday, Republican leaders said enough changes were made to the bill so that they could get on board and vote for it. Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said this in a statement:

The bill that came over from the House regarding the so-called “levy cliff” would have done nothing to wean school districts off the use of local dollars to pay for basic education. The changes we made to the Senate version of that bill, before passing it tonight, bring in the accountability needed to help put the K-12 funding system back onto solid constitutional footing. The bill is now in line with the levy-authority reforms that are part of Senate Bill 5607 – the Education Equality Act that has been on the negotiating table for weeks.

My colleagues across the aisle seemed convinced that school districts would have been making deep cuts had we not taken this vote tonight. My legislative district includes 29 school districts, and none of the superintendents who talked to me seemed panicked about it. But we managed to turn a ‘kick the can’ bill into a worthwhile reform, and hopefully get others in the lawmaking process to return their focus to the real task at hand – a constitutional approach to funding our schools.

Democratic leaders were much less reserved in their support of the bill’s success.

Sen. Andy Billig, Spokane, a moderate Democrat who helped with negotiations on the bill, said the work on this bill showed bipartisanship was still strong in the state legislature. He said this in a statement:

I’m certain that families, teachers and administrators in Spokane and across the state are feeling a sense of relief now that the levy cliff bill has passed – I’m relieved too. Schools in Spokane stood to lose more than $14 million in funding. This bill not only provides a sense of certainty for our teachers, families and students, it is a testament to what we can accomplish when we put our political differences aside to do the right thing.
Often when people think about government, they think about D.C. and gridlock. But in this state, we have proven that we can work together to find common ground.
With that said, it’s time to put this issue behind us and look forward. After all, this is only a small step towards meeting our constitutional obligation to fully and fairly fund our schools.
I am confident that if we use the same spirit of cooperation we saw today, we can negotiate and finalize a complete education funding solution that helps every student achieve their fullest potential.

Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, and Senate Minority Leader, also expressed relief in a statement:

I’d like to thank all of the students, teachers, principals, superintendents, parents, PTA members and everyone who worked tirelessly to finally convince Senate Republicans to relent and work with us to pass this bill.
There was almost literally no student, teacher, family or school district that was immune to the potential devastation a $358 million cut would have had. Today I’m happiest for them.
Now that we have passed the levy cliff bill, it is time to continue our work to fully and fairly fund education.

After moving to the House for consideration Thursday morning, the bill was swiftly passed with a 87-10 vote. Now the bill will head to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office.

Erin Fenner: erin@washingtonstatewire.com, @erinfenner

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