Politics & Government

Senate passes bill to extend ‘levy cliff,’ responding to school district pleas

The state Legislative Building in Olympia is shown on Jan. 3, 2013.
The state Legislative Building in Olympia is shown on Jan. 3, 2013. The Olympian

School districts may not have to worry about going over the so-called levy cliff after all.

Lawmakers in the state Senate came to an agreement Wednesday on a plan to extend school districts’ current taxing authority for another year.

School districts had said they needed lawmakers to approve the extension so they don’t have to plan for budget cuts in the upcoming school year. Without a change in law, the state’s 295 school districts stand to lose between $350 million and $500 million in 2018.

That’s because current law reduces school districts’ ability to raise property taxes locally starting in January.

The compromise measure the Senate approved Wednesday would let school districts continue collecting property taxes at current levels through January 2019.

“I’m pleased we provided certainty for school districts, students, parents and educators throughout our state,” said state Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, one of Senate Democrats’ leaders on education issues. He said the measure was “crucial for districts to not be in chaos” as they write their budgets.

Senators approved Senate Bill 5023 on a 48-1 vote Wednesday, with only Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, voting no.

The state House already approved a similar measure in January, and now will have to consider the measure again, as it was amended by the Senate. Leaders in the Democratic-controlled House said they hope to take up the revised bill as soon as possible.

Democrats, who are in the minority in the state Senate, had urged Republican Senate leaders to bring the measure up for a vote for weeks.

But Republicans, who control the Senate with the aid of one conservative Democrat, had previously said passing the bill could distract from lawmakers’ main task this year: Complying with a court order to fully fund public schools.

In the McCleary case, the state is in contempt of court because lawmakers haven’t come up with a way to end the unconstitutional use of local property tax levies to pay for basic education.

Earlier, Republicans had argued that letting local levies remain at current levels — avoiding the 2018 levy cliff deadline — could take pressure off lawmakers to reach that larger goal.

The deal GOP leaders reached Wednesday with Democrats would extend the current levy lid through 2019, but also require school districts to ensure they aren’t spending their local levies on basic education costs, such as teacher salaries.

To make that happen, districts would have to get approval from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction before putting new levies on the ballot — something Republicans have proposed in their larger plan to overhaul the state’s school system.

School districts would also have to track that local tax money separately from education dollars that come from the state.

State Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, said those accountability provisions “are an absolutely crucial necessity” to solving the state’s school-funding crisis by September 2018, as the state Supreme Court has demanded.

“Local districts need to be held accountable, continually ... so we don’t find ourselves back in this predicament again,” Fain said.

But Baumgartner, who voted against the legislation, said he still thinks the measure could delay progress on solving the McCleary problem.

“I very much question whether there is an actual seriousness about solving whatever you think McCleary is with this vote,” Baumgartner said during the Senate floor debate.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said he and his colleagues are still reviewing the measure approved by the Senate, but at first glance he said it looks like something they can live with.

It was unclear Wednesday night when the bill might be taken up in the House, which had already adjourned for the day before the Senate vote.

Right now, most school districts’ local levy authority is capped at 28 percent of the money they receive from state and federal sources. In January 2018, that cap is set to go down to 24 percent.

Without legislative action, select school districts that are grandfathered in with higher levy lids will also see their levy authority decline by four percentage points next year.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1