Democrats in the state Senate said they will try to force a vote Friday on a bill dealing with school district levies, taking advantage of a temporary tie to sidestep the chamber’s Republican leaders.
Until this week, Republicans controlled the state Senate with a 25-24 majority, with the aid of one Democratic senator who typically votes with the GOP.
That changed Tuesday when state Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, resigned to take a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The resulting 24-24 split in the Senate has Democrats thinking they can act Friday to bring up legislation that would delay a planned reduction in how much school districts can collect in local property tax levies. Without a delay of the “levy cliff,” local school districts stand to lose about $358 million annually starting in January 2018, according to a legislative estimate.
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Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, said Senate Democrats have identified ways they can bring legislation to the floor without the aid of Republican Senate leaders.
But Democrats are hoping that Republicans agree to bring up the measure, House Bill 1059, using the normal channels, so that such an action isn’t necessary, Liias said Thursday.
“It is not our first choice to circumvent the rules and procedures” that typically govern the Senate, said Liias, the Senate Democratic floor leader.
Republicans, meanwhile, maintain that Friday’s 10 a.m. Senate floor session isn’t one where any votes should be expected.
Nor do Senate Republicans agree that the Senate is technically tied right now, said Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn.
Republicans are now working to appoint a replacement for Dansel. According to the state constitution, that person must be a member of the same party.
Even if the Senate were locked in a tie, Fain said Democrats would still have to work in collaboration with Republicans to control the chamber.
“For the minority to make that change kind of flies in the face of how you maintain a functional institution,” said Fain, the Republican floor leader.
The levy cliff bill has become a flashpoint between Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature this year.
The measure passed the Democratic-controlled state House on Monday on a 62-35 vote. But GOP leaders who control the Senate have said they are hesitant to vote on the measure outside of a broader plan to reform how the state pays for public education.
Right now, lawmakers are working to comply with a court order to fix the way the state pays for schools, which may involve adjustments to local school district levies.
“All of these issues are connected,” Fain said.
Democrats, however, have said there’s an urgent need to pass the levy-cliff bill now, so district officials don’t have to plan for drastic budget cuts while the Legislature works to solve larger school-funding problems.
Further emboldening minority Senate Democrats is the absence of Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who was appointed to a temporary job leading communications for the transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency.
On Thursday, Liias said Ericksen was in Washington, D.C., and wouldn’t be available to be part of the Senate floor action Friday.
“Numerically, we actually have more Democrats here in Olympia in the Senate,” Liias said.
“At this present time the Senate’s Democrats are actually in the majority, functionally, because Sen. Ericksen is in D.C. and you have a resignation,” Liias told Fain in front of a handful of reporters.
Liias and Fain disagreed Thursday about whether Democrats have enough votes to bring the levy cliff measure up for a vote Friday, under the Senate’s rules.
But they concurred that passing any legislation would require Republican votes, since approving a bill requires a majority of elected or appointed senators.
Even with Dansel’s seat vacant, that means Democrats will need to get 25 votes, since 48 senators remain in office.
Liias said he expects at least a few Senate Republicans will support the levy cliff bill, noting that a dozen House Republicans broke with the rest of their party to vote in favor of the measure earlier in the week.
Fain said most of his colleagues were unlikely to show up Friday because that day’s floor session is supposed to only be procedural — known as pro forma — where no votes are taken.
Democrats are operating “not based on the current set of facts that we’re dealing with,” Fain said.
It’s unlikely that a debate about whether Democratic Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib can cast tie-breaking votes will come into play Friday. That’s because Ericksen’s absence and Dansel’s resignation would leave the Senate split 24-23, should all the other sitting senators show up to vote.
While some lawmakers maintain the lieutenant governor can break ties only on procedural motions, such as whether to bring bills to the floor, Senate Democrats this week said the lieutenant governor also can cast tie-breaking votes to pass legislation.
The previous lieutenant governor, Democrat Brad Owen, previously cast a tie-breaking vote on the final passage of a bill, but Habib has yet to rule on the issue.