To the end, lawmakers struggle to cross the finish line

A disagreement among Democrats on lifting school levy cap threatened to force a special session.

OLYMPIA — Bleary-eyed state lawmakers trudged toward the finish Sunday of a legislative session punctuated by divisive debates on vaccinations and taxes and a united front in transforming how the state cares for those battling mental illness and substance abuse.

Lawmakers, exhausted after laboring through consecutive all-nighters, were trying to stay on course to approve a new state operating budget and related funding bills by the midnight deadline for the 105-day session.

The plan, crafted by majority Democrats in the House and Senate, lays out $52.8 billion in spending in the next two-year budget cycle. It counts on $1 billion from new taxes on banks and vaping products, and higher taxes on oil refiners, professional service businesses and sellers of expensive properties.

But Sunday night, a disagreement among Democratic leaders on easing the cap on how much school districts collect in local property tax levies threatened to force the Legislature into a special session. An extra session, which the governor must call, can last up to 30 days. Lawmakers needed special sessions to wrap up budgets in 2013, 2015 and 2017, and each time nearly shut down government before reaching a deal.

The state imposed a limit on levies two years ago as part of a comprehensive response to the McCleary school funding lawsuit. Many school districts say that sudden loss of income has created holes in their budgets for the next school year. If the lid isn’t lifted, they say there will be cuts to programs and layoffs.

The House and Senate had passed vastly different proposals. Shortly after 6 p.m. Sunday, the House rejected changes made to its bill by the Senate and insisted senators rescind them.

“We’re going to work up until the final minute,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, adding that they might need a few extra hours to wrap everything up.

This dispute, which had been lingering for weeks, clouded an otherwise bright session for Democrats who achieved much of a very ambitious agenda.

The budget steers millions of additional dollars into special education in public schools and adds treatment beds in hospitals and private facilities for those with behavioral health issues.

Democrats created a first-in-the-nation program to offer a long-term care benefit to many residents and passed laws to give tenants more protection from eviction. And they erased a provision allowing parents to not vaccinate their children against measles because of personal belief.

Cities and counties are going to get a shot at using sales tax to promote affordable housing. And that tax hike on businesses is going into a new account for expanding college financial aid and other higher education programs.

“Those are enormous wins,” said first-year Rep. Lauren Davis, D-Shoreline, who described the higher education account as “an extraordinary and unprecedented investment.”

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee enjoyed a good year too. Lawmakers passed several of his climate priorities, including a measure that seeks to eliminate fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal from the state’s electricity supply by 2045.

Bills he requested creating a public health insurance option, dealing with the opioid crisis, protecting orcas from passing marine vessels and providing pre-paid postage on ballots all cleared the Legislature.

Inslee said Sunday that the budget provides “meaningful progress for the whole state.”

“This is a fantastic step forward for the state, both for education and the environment and a host of these issues that touch our health,” he said. “I think it’s a solid plan.”

For Republicans, those taxes and the increase in spending in the budget — $8.2 billion more than the current one — is what they wanted to talk about.

“The conversation was the same on Day One it is on Day 105,” said House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm. “Republicans said the amount of money coming from the economy was enough and we didn’t need to burden residents and businesses with new taxes and the Democrats said we don’t have enough resources and we need more taxes.”

Sunday afternoon lawmakers overwhelmingly approved both a new two-year $4.9billion capital construction budgets and a new $10 billion transportation budget

This session also brings an end to the 18-year reign of House Speaker Frank Chopp. The Seattle Democrat, the longest serving speaker in state history, plans to leave leadership in the next few days. A new speaker will be elected July 31. At least four women, including Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, are vying for the post.

Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, said there will be financial consequences from the Democrats’ approach.

“They believe in what they are doing and they believe it is the right way to do it,” she said. “I think the repercussions will start to be seen in five years or so and we Republicans had better be in a better position to pick up the pieces.”

Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, cited one silver lining and one cloud.

“There were some great things accomplished with our investments in behavioral health,” he said. “There were some great fails. We are going to get one small baby step for special education. The one thing every school district in my district wanted us to do was to adequately fund special education.”

The Democrats’ tax package includes moving the real estate excise tax from a flat tax to a graduated one based on the selling price of the property. It also contains higher business and occupation taxes on large banks, professional services and major technology companies such as Amazon and Microsoft.

An excise tax on vaping products was added. Changes were made to current tax exemptions, including amending the current sales tax break for residents who live in states that don’t have a sales tax, like Oregon. Under the plan, non-residents would be able to request sales tax refunds of more than $25 and would be limited to one refund per year.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos

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