In Our View: Senate Dems’ Action Stinks

Refusal to back suspension of class-size initiative puts state in $2 billion hole

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By any measure, it doesn’t pass the smell test. As Senate Democrats last week blew a $2 billion hole in the just-approved state operating budget, they exposed the seamy underbelly of political gamesmanship, eschewing compromise and negotiation in favor of extortion. The result is a steaming mess for taxpayers.

Last week, lawmakers finally agreed to a long-overdue, long-negotiated spending agreement for the next two years that was dependent, in part, upon the suspension of Initiative 1351. Voters had approved I-1351, which mandates a reduction in class sizes for public schools, with 50.96 percent of the vote in November. And while the measure was well-meaning, two facts point out the need for the Legislature to suspend the will of the voters: The Office of Financial Management estimates that implementation would require $4.7 billion in state spending over the next five years; and the measure provides no funding mechanism.

After months of negotiations, lawmakers arrived at a deal that provides $1.3 billion in new spending for K-12 education, with the understanding that a two-thirds vote in both chambers would suspend I-1351. The plan was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee — and it was only then that Senate Democrats polished off their monkey wrenches and limbered up their throwing arms. When senators considered suspending I-1351, 17 of them — including Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver — voted against tabling the initiative, leaving the plan short of the two-thirds requirement.

“That was really unfortunate,” Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, told The Columbian. “Never once on the list of problems, of potential problems, did this come up.” Meanwhile, Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, defended his “no” vote by saying, “The voters deserve a thoughtful discussion, not a suspension of their will in the middle of the night.”

Billig is correct, but voters deserved that thoughtful discussion months ago. They deserved the airing of potential problems during the budgeting process. They deserved honest negotiations rather than last-minute strategizing after the process apparently had been completed.

On a basic level, it is difficult to defend the notion that I-1351 should be implemented; lawmakers already are tasked with increasing funding for K-12 education because of the state Supreme Court’s mandate in McCleary v. Washington, and they have made strides toward providing that funding. On a philosophical level, it is impossible to defend the action of Senate Democrats in failing to support suspension of the measure. Nobody wins from further delaying the process, save for Democrats who wish to pander to the Washington Education Association, which supports I-1351.

And on a practical level, it is easy to see the negative consequences from the situation. While the budget still stands, it now has a $2 billion shortfall that can impact the state’s ability to seek bonds for transportation and construction projects. That could make it more difficult and more expensive for Washington to borrow money for much-needed capital projects.

The Legislature, which now is in its third special session, has spent months hammering out a budget that is historic on many levels. It vastly increases spending for K-12 education, funds negotiated contracts with state workers, and remarkably provides for tuition cuts at state colleges and universities. All of this without implementing any new taxes.

The fact that Senate Democrats are willing to risk any good will that might have been generated simply stinks.