Politics & Government

‘You're lying!’ What it looks like when political negotiations break down in Olympia

For a few hours Monday, it looked as if Republicans and Democrats might agree on a plan to let school districts keep collecting the same amount in local property taxes, delaying a deadline that districts say forces them to plan for cuts in 2018.

Things didn’t end up happening that way.

Though Democrats and Republicans in the state Senate had been exchanging offers since Friday about a plan to delay the so-called levy cliff, their disagreement spilled onto the Senate floor late Monday afternoon, with Democrats trying to force a vote on their preferred solution and Republican Senate leaders quickly adjourning to shut down the Democratic attempt.

Shortly after the Democrats’ procedural motion to bring up House Bill 1059 failed, lawmakers from both parties approached reporters in the Senate to tell their side of the story — a fairly typical event following a heated floor debate.

But rather than talking primarily to reporters for the next 10 minutes, the senators spent much of the time arguing with each other instead.

At one point, Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, accused Sen. John Braun, the chamber’s lead budget writer, of misleading reporters about how negotiations played out.

“You’re lying,” said Ranker, the Senate Democrats’ lead budget negotiator.

“Oh, now I’m lying?” replied Braun, who had alleged Democrats rejected a GOP offer while offering no constructive feedback.

The post-adjournment exchange made it look unlikely that a deal on the levy cliff was imminent, even as leaders said they’d continue to work toward a compromise.

Democrats, who are in the minority in the state Senate, have pushed for weeks for the mostly Republican coalition that controls the chamber to bring up House Bill 1059, arguing the bill is needed urgently so school districts can plan their budgets for next year.

The measure, which already cleared the Democratic-controlled state House on a vote of 62-35, would delay changes to school districts’ current levy lid for one year.

Without the delay, school districts’ levy authority is set to go down in 2018, which would cause the state’s 295 school districts to lose between $350 million and $500 million annually, depending on whose estimate you go by.

But Republicans — who control the state Senate with the aid of one conservative Democrat — have said they want to focus first on solving larger school-funding problems, arguing the threat of the levy cliff keeps pressure on the Legislature to accomplish that.

In the McCleary case, the state is in contempt of court over the Legislature’s failure to come up with a plan to fully fund public schools by 2018. To solve that problem, the state needs to stop relying on local school district levies to pay basic education costs such as teacher salaries, which the state Supreme Court has said are costs that must be paid by the state.

On Friday, Senate Democrats proposed amending the levy-cliff bill to track the use of school districts’ local levy money and keep those revenues separate from state dollars for schools — something Republicans have proposed in their plan to overhaul school funding.

On Monday, Republican leaders responded by requesting the Democrats lend their support to other budget measures in exchange for passage of the levy cliff bill. The GOP offer asked Democrats to agree to permanently shift money away from the Public Works Trust Fund — an account that provides loans to local governments for sewer and water projects — to help pay for education investments, as well as to pass a construction budget that pays for school improvements.

Those actions would require the support of a supermajority of the Senate, meaning Republican leaders would need several Democratic votes.

Democrats balked at the offer and instead tried a procedural move to bring their preferred version of the bill — House Bill 1059 — directly to the floor for a vote.

“We really felt a lot of frustration that what they presented to us was dragging in a bunch of really significant policies that are unrelated to the levy cliff challenge,” said state Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, in an interview afterward.

Liias, the Senate’s minority floor leader, said he hoped a Republican lawmaker would vote with Democrats to help bring the legislation to the floor.

Instead, all 25 members of the conservative Senate majority voted to adjourn for the day, shutting down any potential debate on the issue.

State Sen. Joe Fain, the majority floor leader, said he didn’t understand why Democrats wouldn’t continue exchanging offers and working to come to a compromise behind-the-scenes.

“The fact that it was rejected out of hand I think was a mistake if our goal is to solve the levy cliff,” said Fain, R-Auburn.

“Just be willing to negotiate,” he told Democratic leaders, prompting a new round of arguing between lawmakers.

A similar attempt by Senate Democrats to force a vote on the levy cliff bill failed last month.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1