Politics & Government

Court finds state in contempt in school funding case

Following a unanimous order of contempt issued Thursday by the state Supreme Court, members of the Legislature agreed that they have to act decisively next year to meet the court’s order that they fully fund education.

Yet lawmakers remained divided about how to meet the court’s 2018 deadline, with some key lawmakers still mired in the debate — taxes versus reforms — that has hobbled progress on education funding.

The Supreme Court held the state of Washington in contempt Thursday over the Legislature’s failure to come up with a court-ordered education funding plan in the landmark education funding case known as McCleary.

But state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said the time for plans has passed, and the Legislature needs to simply solve the problem, an approach he called “the Yoda model.”

“You don’t need to try, you just need to do,” the House’s chief budget writer said, paraphrasing a line from the “Star Wars” character.

Hunter estimated at least $3 billion in additional funding is needed by the 2017-19 budget to fund education reforms already approved by the Legislature, such as expanding all-day kindergarten and reducing class sizes for students in kindergarten through third grade. He said that can’t be accomplished without measures such as raising taxes, ending certain tax breaks or extending taxes that are ending.

“Not unless you want to close down three or four prisons and privatize the entire higher education system, which I don’t think we want to do,” Hunter said.

Meanwhile, education leaders in the state Senate, which is led by a mostly Republican majority, said that raising taxes shouldn’t be the go-to answer, and that lawmakers need to fund education before other areas of the budget.

“Making the funding of our schools dependent on whether you increase taxes or not — I don’t see how that is in line with what the court has said and what the constitution says about it being our paramount duty,” said Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, who is the vice chairman of the Senate education committee.

Dammeier said the state should also examine current education policies to make sure they’re working well.

“We need to take a fresh look to make sure we think those are still the right ways to invest money to get the best outcomes for kids,” Dammeier said.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that state lawmakers were not adequately funding the state’s school system. The court ordered the Legislature to meet its constitutional obligation to fully fund schools by 2018.

In January, the court said the state wasn’t making adequate progress toward that funding goal, and ordered lawmakers to deliver a detailed long-term funding plan to the court by April 30. Lawmakers didn’t produce such a plan.

Thursday’s order finding the state in contempt is due to lawmakers’ failure to comply with the January order, the court said.

It marks the first time the Supreme Court has found the state in contempt following an action — or in this case, inaction — by the Legislature, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The contempt finding doesn’t come with any immediate penalties or sanctions. Justices said that they will give lawmakers until the end of the 2015 legislative session to come up with the funding plan ordered earlier this year.

“The court has no doubt that it already has the Legislature’s ‘attention,’ ” Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote on behalf of the nine-member court. “But that is not the purpose of a contempt order. Rather, contempt is the means by which a court enforces compliance with its lawful orders when they are not followed.”

If lawmakers don’t act next year, “the court will reconvene to impose sanctions and other remedial measures as necessary,” the order states.

Gov. Jay Inslee called the Supreme Court action “unprecedented,” and “a critical moment in our history.”

“No one should be surprised, yet no one should minimize the court’s order,” the statement from Inslee said. “The Legislature now must act before it adjourns next year or face the yet to be determined sanctions.”

Thomas Ahearne, the lawyer for the group of parents, school districts and school advocacy groups that sued the state, had previously suggested the court impose sanctions such as shutting down the state’s school system until it is funded properly, or invalidating budget cuts made to education programs.

On Thursday, however, Ahearne said he thought the court’s contempt finding alone will help spur lawmakers to act.

The order says that if lawmakers don’t come up with a long-term education funding plan by the end of their 2015 session, they must explain in writing to the court the next day why they did not comply — and why court sanctions shouldn’t be issued.

“This wipes out all the excuses,” Ahearne said Thursday. “For the lawmakers who are sitting back thinking, ‘the court can’t tell us what to do,’ or ‘we’ve got plenty of time,’ I think this makes it clear that all your excuses are gone. You now have to produce.”

State Rep. Chad Magendanz, the lead Republican on the House Education Committee, said he thinks the 2015 deadline set by the court’s contempt order will push lawmakers to reach a consensus on tough issues surrounding education funding.

“We are going to have Democrats who want large tax measures, we are going to have Republicans who are going to want significant reforms,” said Magendanz, R-Issaquah. “This is going to to drive the compromise in those discussions.”

Some lawmakers have criticized the Supreme Court’s actions in the McCleary case, saying that the court usurped the role of the Legislature earlier this year by ordering lawmakers to produce an education funding plan.

Dammeier said he thinks that the Supreme Court sidestepped some of those issues Thursday by declining to sanction lawmakers immediately, and allowing them proceed with their budget-writing process next year.

Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, disagreed, saying the court was “way out of its lane” and is interfering with the Legislature’s role as the state’s budget-setting authority.

Baumgartner said he doesn’t think that the contempt order — which he called “a disappointing, strange and inconsequential decision” — will influence the Legislature’s negotiation process next year.

The Legislature already put about $1 billion toward education in its 2013-15 budget, and “is on a path to comply with McCleary,” Baumgartner said.

“You don’t write budgets because the Supreme Court threatened you to do things,” Baumgartner said. “That’s exactly why we have a separation of powers.”