Gov. Jay Inslee, surrounded by Democratic lawmakers from the Senate and House, talks to reporters very early Monday after the Washington Legislature adjourned its 105-day session in Olympia. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)

Gov. Jay Inslee, surrounded by Democratic lawmakers from the Senate and House, talks to reporters very early Monday after the Washington Legislature adjourned its 105-day session in Olympia. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)

With last-minute deal on school levies, Legislature adjourns

Democratic leaders and the governor were all smiles after succeeding with an ambitious agenda.

OLYMPIA — They almost didn’t make it out on time.

But bleary-eyed state lawmakers trudged across the finish line of their 2019 session moments before midnight Sunday after Democrats in the House and Senate ended their feuding on a bill allowing school districts to collect more money from local property tax levies.

The disagreement, which centered on how much to ease the levy cap, was holding up action on a new state budget and threatening to force the Legislature into a special session.

But around 10:30 p.m., a deal came together with the assistance of House Republicans that cleared the way for passage of the so-called levy lift as well as the budget and a couple other bills before adjournment.

It was a somewhat fitting conclusion to a session dominated by Democrats who used their majorities in the two chambers, plus Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, to push through most of a very ambitious agenda.

The $52.4 billion two-year budget passed the House on a 57-41 vote shortly after clearing the Senate on a 27-21 vote. It counts on roughly $1 billion from new taxes on vaping products, and higher taxes on big banks, oil refiners, professional service businesses and sellers of expensive properties.

It 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.

Lawmakers passed several of the governor’s climate priorities, including a measure that seeks to eliminate fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal from the state electricity supply by 2045, and one establishing new energy-efficient building standards.

Bills Inslee 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.

“This truly has been an epic legislative session,” Inslee said at a middle-of-the-night news conference shortly after adjournment. “There is a time to be humble, and this is not one of them.”

Another new law will give cities and counties a shot at a local sales tax to promote affordable housing in their communities. And the tax increase on professional-service and high-tech 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.”

Also Sunday night, the House and Senate each passed Initiative 1000, a measure that would allow the state to use hiring and recruitment goals — but not quotas — to bring minority candidates into state jobs, education and contracting. The measure loosens restrictions enacted in a separate 1998 initiative that banned government discrimination or preferential treatment based on factors like race or gender.

Earlier Sunday, the future didn’t look so bright to Democrats because of the lingering dispute over local school levies.

Two years ago, under a 2012 state Supreme Court order, legislators increased the statewide property tax and distributed that money to districts. The court had ruled that the state government did not adequately fund public schools. At the time, though, lawmakers set a hard cap on local tax levies, figuring the amount of additional state dollars districts received would offset any loss of local tax revenue.

The state told districts they could collect no more than $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, or $2,500 per student — whichever was less.

Many school districts said that sudden loss of income was creating major problems for the coming school year. They warned of program cuts and layoffs if the lid didn’t get lifted.

The House and Senate had passed vastly different Democrat-crafted proposals. Neither chamber wanted to cede its position.

A stare-down ensued on the legislation, Senate Bill 5313. House Republicans, who opposed the bill, had piled on amendments. House Democrats had concerns about how much time would be spent debating them and hoped the GOP would back off.

Republicans did agree to withdraw the amendments, enabling the bill’s quick passage. In return, they got support for legislation they wanted, including one-time spending for some hard-hit districts.

“We figured we can be obstructionists … or we can be the responsible ones,” said Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn.

Under the levy legislation, districts with fewer than 40,000 students will be able to collect $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, or $2,500 per student, whichever is less. Districts with more than 40,000 students can collect the lesser of $2.50 per $1,000, or $3,000 per student.

“I am so pleased the House agreed with our levy,” said Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island. “It is a bill that meets the needs of our state.”

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, warned that raising the cap could lead to the same kind of funding inequity between districts that resulted in the Supreme Court order.

“Remember this day, because we are going to have to fix it,” he said.

Until late Sunday, the focus of Republicans in the House and Senate was on the new and higher taxes, and an increase of $8.2 billion in spending compared to the current budget.

“The conversation was the same on Day One (as) 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 two-year, $4.9 billion capital construction budget and a $10 billion transportation budget.

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.”

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 end his leadership role 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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

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