Peter Callaghan: Not much for Legislature to do except ramp up school funding

peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.comJanuary 12, 2014 

Suppose they gave a legislative session and nobody came?

Unlikely, I know. There is too much money and power to toss around for all those folks to pass on the chance to hang out together for a few months.

But it could be that if the Legislature simply adjourned after the state-of-the-state speech Tuesday, not many residents of Washington would notice. And given the relatively meager agendas being proposed by the two houses and the two (or is it three?) parties, it’s hard to see what would be lost. Even Gov. Jay Inslee defined his second session in office as a “Hold Steady, Get Ready” year. That is, hold steady this session so as to be able to get ready for the longer session in 2015.

On one level, this is good news. For the first time since the dawn of the Great Recession, a governor isn’t proposing deep cuts in spending. The even-year budget is back to what it is supposed to be — not a complete rewrite but a fine-tuning of the two-year plan adopted the year before. Yet there is even talk of not even doing that much.

And there isn’t some other crisis driving the agenda.

Lawmakers themselves don’t want to diminish their importance by agreeing that it might be a year to stand down. But when asked for their list of must-dos, legislators of both parties mostly include stuff that might pass one body but not the other.

Democrats, for example, want to repass the Reproductive Parity Act that requires health insurers to cover abortion. But there is zero chance of the bill getting through the Senate. In turn, Republicans speak of further reforms to workers’ compensation and public pensions that won’t get far in the House.

Even the one biggie both sides say is needed — a transportation construction deal complete with a dime a gallon or more in increased gas taxes — might be put off for another year.

So it all sounds like base-pleasing — an agenda more for the 2014 elections than the 2014 legislative session.

The only branch of government that seems to have higher expectations for the upcoming session is the judiciary.

In its latest order regarding how the governor and the Legislature are moving toward full funding of public education, the state Supreme Court said a faster pace is needed. And despite the mutual back-patting over the money added to schools last session, the court was less impressed.

“Overall, the State’s Report demonstrates that it understands what progress looks like, and unlike in 2012, it has taken some steps toward fulfilling its constitutional mandate,” wrote Chief Justice Barbara Madsen for the majority. “But it cannot realistically claim to have made significant progress when its own analysis shows that it is not on target to implement (House Bill 2261 and HB 2776) by the 2017-18 school year.”

Those are the laws that lay out what the Legislature believes is adequate funding. The court isn’t dictating how much is enough, only that the Legislature fulfill its own promises made to the students and parents of the state as well as to the court.

Since it is already behind the pace needed to meet the requirements of the court’s landmark 2012 school funding decision known as McCleary, Madsen wrote that this session should be put to that use.

“The Legislature is embarking on a short session in 2014, where it has an opportunity to take a significant step forward,” Madsen wrote. “The need for immediate action could not be more apparent. Conversely, failing to act would send a strong message about the state’s good faith commitment toward fulfilling its constitutional promise.”

The court then ordered the state to file yet another self-evaluation by April 30.

I suppose, then, that it wouldn’t look good for the Legislature to skip the session entirely. But it can’t hope to do nothing regarding schools funding and expect an increasingly impatient Supreme Court to once again wait till next year.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657

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