Politics & Government

Court fines state government $100,000 per day for failure to fund education

The Washington State Supreme Court is fining state government $100,000 per day over the Legislature’s continued failure to pass a plan to fully fund public education.
The Washington State Supreme Court is fining state government $100,000 per day over the Legislature’s continued failure to pass a plan to fully fund public education. Staff file, 2013

State lawmakers’ long year of budget talks might not be over.

The state Supreme Court hit Washington state government Thursday with fines of $100,000 per day in an attempt to force the Legislature back to Olympia to finally pass the plan the court has been demanding to fully fund public schools.

“Given the gravity of the State’s ongoing violation of its constitutional obligation to amply provide for public education, and in light of the need for expeditious action, the time has come for the court to impose sanctions,” the ruling said.

The contempt-of-court sanctions are the latest development in the McCleary case, in which the court ruled in 2012 that the state was failing to meet its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education and ordered it to correct the funding gap by 2018.

In January 2014, the court ordered state lawmakers to come up with a plan to fully fund education by the 2018 deadline. Court justices held the state in contempt last September over the Legislature’s failure to produce such a plan, but they said they would wait to impose sanctions until after the Legislature had a chance to make progress during its 2015 session.

Lawmakers adjourned in July with a budget that put more money toward reducing class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, paying for school materials and operating costs, and expanding all-day kindergarten — all key parts of the McCleary decision.

But they didn’t come up with a plan for reducing the state’s reliance on local school district levies to pay for basic education costs, which the court has clearly said are a state responsibility, not a local one. The court called out pay for school employees, which most districts supplement with local levy dollars, as an area where the state has “wholly failed to offer any plan.”

In a decision signed by all nine justices Thursday, the court ordered the state to begin paying the daily fine of $100,000 immediately, placing the money in a special account to benefit basic education.

The court also urged Gov. Jay Inslee to convene a special session of the Legislature, during which lawmakers could pass an education funding plan that would bring the state into compliance with the court’s order.

If the Legislature complies, the court said it would vacate all the daily penalties accrued while lawmakers are meeting; otherwise, the fines will continue to mount.

It wasn’t immediately clear Thursday whether Inslee would call lawmakers back to Olympia to address the court’s latest decision. The Democratic governor said in a statement Thursday that he would meet Monday with legislative leaders in Seattle “to begin the necessary and difficult work before us.”

“There is much that needs to be done before a special session can be called,” Inslee’s statement said. “I will ask lawmakers to do that work as quickly as humanly possible so that they can step up to our constitutional and moral obligations to our children and lift the court sanctions.”

Leaders of both the Republican-led Senate and the Democrat-led House issued statements Thursday saying there is more work to be done, although without committing to a special session.

Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, said the Legislature could easily absorb the $100,000-a-day fine and wait to address the court’s ruling until January, when lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene for a new 60-day session.

The Legislature will have accrued only about $21 million in fines by the time lawmakers are schedule to adjourn that session in March 2016, Magendanz noted. And state lawmakers plan to spend much more than that addressing the remaining parts of the McCleary decision, he said, including shifting the burden of paying teachers and other school staff from local school districts to the state.

“I don’t see much of a downside to letting that money accrue, and then using it for whatever solution we come up with next year,” said Magendanz, who co-chairs a committee that updates the court on lawmakers’ progress in the McCleary case.

Had the court wished to create a more urgent crisis, Magendanz said, it could have struck down the part of the state budget that pays teacher and school employee salaries, essentially forcing Inslee to call a special session to ensure that schools could operate this fall.

But the attorney for the school districts, unions and others that sued the state, Tom Ahearne, said a decision to “eat the fines” because they amount to “chump change” is sure to provoke the court into handing down firmer sanctions.

He said the justices opted to start with the sanction they see as most productive.

“They don’t want to escalate this into a nuclear battle where nobody wins,” Ahearne said, “but they want to make it clear to the Legislature and the governor that they’re serious about having their order complied with.”

Shortly after Thursday’s ruling, some Republican lawmakers took to Twitter to question the court order. State Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, went as far as to say the Legislature should look into removing some of the justices from office or at least investigating their conduct.

“The Washington Supreme Court has gone rogue. It is time for articles of impeachment,” Manweller tweeted.

A Democratic lawmaker, Sen. David Frockt of Seattle, said the court remains within the bounds of its authority. Fines are the most common way for courts to address contempt, he said, and the court isn’t telling the Legislature exactly what measures to take to fund education.

“The court is clearly trying to walk a line here,” said Frockt, who is the other co-chairman of the McCleary committee.

The court has the power to fine the state, said Phil Talmadge, who is both a former Democratic lawmaker and former state Supreme Court justice. But he said it’s not clear what a plan would need to look like to satisfy the justices.

On that, Talmadge said, “The court has been absolutely silent.”

The court says it wants a “phase-in schedule and benchmarks for measuring full compliance with the components of basic education.”

A handful of legislative proposals this year suggested reducing local school district levies and raising taxes at the state level to help the state assume school employee salary costs being born unconstitutionally by local school districts.

But a footnote in Thursday’s decision says the court offers “no opinion” on whether levy reform is necessary as part of funding school employee salaries, saying, “how the State achieves full funding is up to the Legislature.”

Besides the issue of pay, the court criticized the Legislature for not making enough progress in its plan to reduce K-3 class sizes to 17 students by 2018.

The state’s new two-year budget puts about $1.3 billion toward meeting key requirements of the McCleary decision, including about $350 million for smaller class sizes. But a legislative task force dealing with education funding previously estimated the state would need to invest nearly twice that in 2015-17 to meet the Legislature’s 2018 goal, the court said.

The state teacher’s union, which has pushed for higher pay and lower class sizes, praised the court’s order in a statement.

“Now, perhaps, the state will step up to its duty to our students and educators,” said Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association.

State schools chief Randy Dorn also issued a statement, saying he was “very pleased” with the ruling and that “a $100,000-a-day penalty shows that the Court has made this a priority.”

Already in 2015, state lawmakers have spent more time in session than in any other year, partly due to pressure to come up with money to satisfy requirements of the McCleary case.

Lawmakers required three special sessions to finalize a new two-year operating budget, meeting for a total of 176 days.