Even the Supreme Court can’t break the gridlock in Olympia

Call me naïve, but when the State Supreme Court issued an order in the McCleary case in January directing the legislature to adopt a “complete plan” showing how they intended to fund by 2018 the education plans they themselves have made, I wrote the following about the legislature: “unless they are willing to thumb their noses at the constitution, they now must work together to pass a serious plan to fully fund our schools”. It turns out the gridlock in Olympia is so now powerful even court orders are ignored.

On Tuesday, April 29, the legislature issued its required report to the Court. The report doesn’t include the required funding plan, but it is remarkably candid about how the legislature views the ongoing debate over McCleary and education funding.

The report makes clear that the leadership of the legislature, Republicans and Democrats, House and Senate, agree that current education funding levels are unconstitutional. They agree that the bills they passed in 2009 and 2010 – HB 2261 and HB 2776 – “constitute an overall framework for what the basic education program should look like by 2018.” They acknowledge that the program they passed can only be changed for educational reasons, and that it is their responsibility to fund that program.

The legislative leaders “recognize the Court′s legitimate mandate to ensure that the paramount duty is fulfilled in a constitutionally adequate manner.” They don’t challenge the Court’s authority to hold them accountable and require them to report to the Court.

So if the legislature doesn’t dispute the core aspects of the McCleary case, and agrees that the Court has the authority to hold them accountable, why haven’t they done what the Court has ordered them to do?

In their own words:

There are profoundly different political and policy perspectives within the 147 members of the Legislature on how best to proceed to meet the State’s Article IX duty. As summarized above, proposals have been introduced addressing the funding of the basic education program and other education reforms but have not had sufficient consensus to pass the Legislature….

The Legislature recognizes, as does the Court, that the remaining enhancement targets must be met by the statutory implementation date of 2018, which means that the pace of implementation must increase. For this reason, the upcoming biennial budget developed in the 2015 legislative session must address how the targets will be met.

The Committee respectfully suggests that the Court give deep consideration to its response to the actions taken in 2014, that such response not be counterproductive, and that it recognize that 2015 is the next and most critical year for the Legislature to reach the grand agreement needed to meet the state’s Article IX duty by the statutorily scheduled full implementation date of 2018.

So Republicans and Democrats have been unable to agree, but don’t worry, we’ll reach a “grand agreement,” next year, after the election. And oh, by the way Your Honors, don’t do anything “counterproductive,” like hold us in contempt.

Amazing. The inability of the two parties to work together and compromise is now so common, and so accepted in Olympia and Washington, D.C., that gridlock is offered up as a legitimate excuse to ignore a court order.

Now we wait for the Court to respond. Will they give the legislature more time, or will they carry out the threat they made in their January order to hold legislators in contempt, or give them specific funding orders?

We live in a time of divided government.  The election of 2014 is not likely to change that.  Republicans and Democrats absolutely must learn how to sit down and reach agreements if smarter government reforms in education, transportation, immigration, and budgets have any chance of ever being enacted. If court orders can’t force bipartisan cooperation, maybe it’s up the voters to make it happen by electing candidates who pledge to compromise and actually work with the other party.

Am I being naïve again?

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Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Former State Representative, County Councilman, and GOP State Chairman. Now working as a Public Affairs Consultant, Senior Advisor to SPI Randy Dorn, and Political Commentator on KING and KCTS TV and Crosscut.com
  • I think part of the problem is what constitutes ‘adequate funding’ given that millions of dollars people THINK are going to education go to lots of other programs that detract from a decent education. Dollars alone won’t make it all work, its HOW the dollars are spent, b of course every politician and every educator, and every education administrator has their OWN definition of how spend the money.

  • Janet_Suppes

    The last two budgets in Olympia were passed with large bipartisan margins, and a new
    enthusiasm to listen to both sides. This isn’t an indication of”gridlock”, but instead indicates a change in how things can get done. Let’s not go back to the good old days, where Frank Chopp declares what will be done, and everyone just nods “yes”.

  • Chris Vance

    Two points:
    1. The legislature must pass a budget to avoid a shut down of the government, but they admit their budgets didn’t do enough to meet their obligation to education. Both sides agreeing to not do what they know must be done is not progress towards bipartisan cooperation.
    2. Most of the McCleary debate is about how to replace levy dollars going to basic things like busses, lights, materials, and salaries, with state dollars. And again, the legislature says in their report that they all recognize what they need to fund, they just don’t agree on how to do it.