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Impasse Over Budget Forces Special Session in Washington

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The Washington State General Assembly began a special session last week after failing to reach an agreement during its regular session on the state's biennial operating and capital budgets.

Central to the debate over both the budgets is the Children's Initiative, which calls for an additional $360 million in spending for education, welfare, and social programs. The measure was placed before lawmakers as a result of a citizens' petition.

Lawmakers did not act on the initiative during the session that ended April 23. Under state law, the legislature's failure to approve, reject, or amend the measure cleared the way for it to appear on the statewide ballot next fall.

The $12.8-billion education budget passed by the House during the regular session assumes the initiative will be approved by voters. The Senate's $12.5-billion version of the bill, however, reflects that chamber's doubts about the initiative's chances.

Children At Risk

Before the end of the regular session, lawmakers passed two major education-related bills: a $23-million drug-abuse prevention measure and a comprehensive program for at-risk children.

The controversial anti-drug bill would allow school administrators to conduct strip searches and locker searches if they have a reasonable suspicion that a student possesses drugs. It also would authorize $13 million to tighten school security and $10 million for the hiring of drug counselors, said Perry Keithley, a spokesman for the state superintendent of public instruction.

The bill aimed at students at risk, which was sought by Gov. Booth Gardner, includes a "second chance" choice provision that would allow dropouts to return to any school in the state, with state per-pupil aid following the student.

Ronn Robinson, Mr. Gardner's education advisor, said the provision is intended to offer the benefits of school choice "only to those who need it most."

The bill also would create new child-abuse-prevention, student-tutoring, and paraprofessional-training programs. In addition, it includes a provision recommended by a task force on dropouts appointed by the Governor that requires the state to drop its current grading system based on Carnegie units in favor of a system that measures attainment of ''core competencies."

Mr. Gardner will establish a new study group to recommend "how to make the switch," Mr. Robinson said.

Also during the regular session, the Governor and legislative leaders agreed to develop a tax-reform plan by July 1. That measure could appear on the fall ballot along with the Children's Initiative.

State officials said teacher salaries and school construction are among the top budget issues facing lawmakers during the special session.

The Senate education budget includes $232.5 million to raise teacher salaries by about 8 percent over two years. The House version earmarks $245.7 million for a 9 percent raise, with most of the increase coming in the second year of the biennium.

Governor Gardner has recommended an 8.5 percent salary increase. The Washington Education Association and other state education groups, however, have called for a 20 percent raise in pay.

Moratorium on Construction

The state board of education, meanwhile, has indefinitely extended a moratorium on school districts' building projects in an attempt to pressure lawmakers to pump more dollars into the chronically underfinanced school-construction fund.

According to Michael Roberts, a spokesman for the board, districts are seeking a total of $316 million in state matching grants for construction and renovation projects. But only $61 million is available this year in the construction fund, which obtains revenues from timber sales.

Bob Marshall, a state-board member, said the board "just felt it was irresponsible to continue promising districts money that was not there." The panel voted last month to extend a temporary decision in January to deny districts' funding requests.

The board's action was prompted by pleas from four districts with severe overcrowding problems to be exempted from the funding ban.

Judith Billings, the state school chief, successfully urged the board not to grant the districts' requests, saying that to do so would "break the force of the moratorium."

"It's a point of principle," Ms. Billings said last week. The construction problem, she added, "will be with us another 10 years" and needs more than a promise of more money.

Two Plans Being Considered

Lawmakers are considering two proposals during the special session to bolster the construction fund, but state officials say neither would fully accommodate districts' needs.

A bill in the Senate would generate an additional $130 million for the fund by allocating revenues from a state bond issue two years ago and from the sale of future rights to cut timber.

A House bill would raise only an additional $45 million by earmarking the bond revenues for construction. It would authorize additional spending if the Children's Initiative is approved by voters.

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