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Legislature passes school levy bill sought by districts

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The Legislature on Thursday passed a measure delaying a deadline for a reduction in the amount of money school districts can collect through local property tax levies, even as lawmakers continue their work on writing a two-year budget that fully funds education while lessening the districts’ reliance on those very levies.

The House passed a measure on an 87-10 vote a day after the Senate passed the bill on a bipartisan 48-1 vote. The measure now heads to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.

School districts had faced a reduction in the amount they can collect through local levies starting next year, but the measure passed by lawmakers pushes that deadline off until 2019. The levy issue is part of a broader discussion surrounding education funding, an issue for which the state is currently being held in contempt by the state Supreme Court.

Lawmakers are working to comply with a 2012 ruling that they must fully fund the state's basic education system. Lawmakers have already put more than $2 billion toward the issue since the ruling, but the biggest piece remaining of the court order is figuring out how much the state must provide for teacher salaries. School districts currently pay a big chunk of those salaries with local property-tax levies.

Republican Rep. David Taylor said that he was concerned that the bill removes the urgency from lawmakers to finally solve the longstanding education funding issue.

"I'm a 'no' because I don't want to see us lose the incentive to continue pushing forward," he said. "I don't want this body to back down and say 'we've done it again, we're good for the rest of the year, we can address this next year.'"

But school districts have said they need to start planning budgets now, and absent an approved budget plan from the Legislature, which is about halfway through the 105-day legislative session, they needed to know that they wouldn't face what was referred to as a "levy cliff" next year.

"It gives some measure of certainty to our school districts as they are doing their budgeting process," said Democratic Rep. Kristine Lytton, the key budget writer in the House. "We have a lot of work before us. This is a first step."

The House had passed its version of the levy cliff bill in January, but it had stalled in the Republican-led Senate, which had included the levy cliff delay within the GOP's overall education proposal that passed out of the Senate last month.

But after negotiations that included the governor's office, the compromise Senate bill that passed on the Senate floor Wednesday night include two changes that are pieces from the Senate Republican education funding plan: Starting next year, school districts would need to keep state and local funds in different accounts, and, also starting next year, local levies would need to be submitted to and approved by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction before going to voters.

Jessica Vavrus, governmental relations director for the Washington State School Directors' Association, said that the measure allows districts to keep current staffing levels and programs as they start to prepare their budgets for the 2017-2018 school year. She said the state's 295 school districts faced losing about $470 million next year if the measure wasn't passed.

"Passage of the bill does not take the pressure off of finding a longer term solution to basic education funding," Vavrus said in a statement. "In fact, school districts can now fully engage in the budget discussions underway in the Legislature, without the distraction of the levy cliff looming."