Supreme Court Throws Education Monkey Wrench Into 2014 Legislative Session

When Republican and Democratic legislative leaders sat down with the Olympia press corps last Thursday morning, their competing messages made it clear that there was no bipartisan agreement to do anything significant during the 2014 legislative session.  A few hours later, however, the state supreme court gave the legislature a mandatory homework assignment regarding education funding that may significantly change the course of politics and smarter government in 2014 and beyond.

Every year the leaders of the House and Senate meet with the media just before the beginning of the legislative session, in a forum sponsored by Associated Press.  This year, the Democratic leaders, House Speaker, Frank Chopp, and Senate Minority Leader, Sharon Nelson, said the party’s top priorities were passing bills regarding mandatory abortion insurance coverage and college scholarship funding for  undocumented students, both of which failed to pass last year.  They also said passing a transportation package was a priority, but insisted the Senate needs to act first on transportation.  The Democrats also highlighted their desire to spend more money on human services programs.

The Republican leaders, Rep. Dan Kristiansen, and Sen. Mark Schoesler, took a different approach, saying their top priorities were jobs and keeping a sustainable budget in place by holding the line on new spending.  They focused on changes to the workers compensation system which failed to pass the Democratically-controlled House last year as one way to improve the economic environment in the state.  The Republicans talked about using the slight increases in state revenues to pay down our pension liability, add to reserves, or perhaps just saving the money by not passing a supplemental budget at all.

No one talked about serious bipartisan negotiations to actually pass any of the policy proposals they support.  In fact, as the day went on it became apparent that disputes over paying for hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns on Seattle’s “big dig” to replace the Viaduct and the 520 project, as well as Governor Jay Inslee’s crusade to raise the cost of gasoline to fight carbon emissions, were crippling the already faint hopes of reaching an agreement on transportation.

In other words, the legislative leaders seemed to confirm the assumptions of many that nothing significant was likely to pass during the 2014 session, while both sides geared up for this fall’s elections.

Then the Supreme Court dropped a bomb on the 2014 legislative session.

On Thursday afternoon the court issued its third order of the ongoing McCleary case regarding full state funding of public education.  The state is already under court order to fully fund basic education without the use of local levies by the year 2018.  The Court reviewed the legislature’s progress made in last year’s state budget, and then significantly upped the ante.

The Court found that the legislature “cannot claim to have made significant progress,” towards achieving full funding, and ordered the legislature to adopt and send to the court a “complete plan” to achieve state funding by 2018.  This homework assignment is due by April 30 of this year.

In case the legislature doubts the Court’s resolve, the justices included this:

We have no wish to be forced to enter into specific funding directives to the State, or, as some state high courts have done, holding the legislature in contempt of court.  But, it is incumbent upon the state to demonstrate, through immediate, concrete action, that it is making real and measurable progress, not just promises.

So, Republican and Democratic leaders may have been content to do as little as possible during the 2014 session, but now they risk a constitutional confrontation with the third branch of government unless they work together to craft a serious plan on education funding.

Lawmakers should not call the Court’s bluff.  Instead, they should accept this mandate to finally adopt a phase-in schedule to reach full state funding of our schools, as the constitution clearly requires.  There is already agreement in place, and largely in law, regarding what comprises full state funding.  The problem is how to find $5 billion or more to pay for it.

As Rob McKenna said during the 2012 campaign, and as I have written here before, the legislature should start with some form of” levy swap” which lowers local levy rates  while increasing the state property tax levy which goes to education.  This change would not raise taxes, and would get the state much closer to the funding level needed.

Nothing can pass in Olympia this year without the support of both Republicans and Democrats.  The two parties should work together to pass a transportation package, and reforms to help our state compete for jobs.  But, 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.

The Court is demanding the legislature take a significant step towards smarter government in 2014.  How will lawmakers respond?

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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