SEATTLE — The Washington Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the state Legislature isn't making enough progress toward finding more money for K-12 education in answer to the court's decision in the McCleary school funding lawsuit.
The high court told lawmakers they must have something better to report after they finish their work in spring 2013.
"Steady progress requires forward movement. Slowing the pace of funding cuts is necessary, but it does not equate to forward progress," wrote Chief Justice Barbara Madsen in the order filed Thursday.
In January, the Supreme Court ruled the state isn't meeting its constitutional obligation to amply pay for basic education. In the past decade, education spending has gone from close to 50 percent to just above 40 percent of the state budget, despite the fact that some education spending is protected by the constitution.
State lawmakers have in recent years been dealing with large budget deficits, and earlier this year they cut $300 million in state funding.
The Supreme Court has given the Legislature until 2018 to fix the problem, but it wants to see yearly reports that "demonstrate steady progress."
Lawmakers filed their first report in September and lawyers representing the coalition that brought the lawsuit against the state responded in October. The Supreme Court's response to the two filings show the court mostly agrees with the coalition but did not take any punishing action against the Legislature.
State Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said he worries that political posturing and a refusal by Republicans to even consider tax increases may prevent lawmakers from making the kind of progress the Supreme Court wants to see during this next session.
He and other legislative leaders estimate lawmakers need to find as much as $2.5 billion during this session -- nearly $1 billion to close a budget gap and $1 billion to $1.5 billion to make a down payment on the McCleary decision -- and Sullivan doesn't see $2.5 billion lawmakers can cut from the state budget without hurting people who depend on state services.
"We're heading into a constitutional crisis," if the Legislature fails to act and the Supreme Court has to decide what happens next, Sullivan predicted.
State Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, said the Democrats are the roadblock to getting this work done, because they are too focused on tax increases that no one else wants to consider.
"We shouldn't use education as the hostage for getting tax increases," he said.
Education, including the necessary enhancements, should be the first priority of the Legislature, and if lawmakers want to add money to the state budget to pay for other priorities, then those ideas can be debated after the education work is done, he said.
Alexander expressed optimism that eventually lawmakers will be able to sit down and work out a compromise. "I don't think that's going to happen for a very long time," he added.
Madsen wrote that the next report, due right after lawmakers finish their work in 2013, needs to show how the Legislature will meet its deadline and what it has done so far. The ruling clarified what the court is looking for in the next report.
The attorney representing the coalition of school districts, parents and education groups that sued the state said he appreciated the Supreme Court's timing. By making a ruling now instead of during or after the legislative session, the Supreme Court is showing how serious it is about this decision, Thomas Ahearne said.
"The supremes are not just going to leave them alone and let them do whatever they want, like delay," he said.
Gov. Chris Gregoire called the ruling another wake-up call about how seriously the court is taking this issue.
"This is the most important issue for the Legislature this session, and in the budget I announced this week, I offered a path that I think meets the requirements of the Supreme Court. More importantly, it is a path that I believe meets the needs of our students," she said.
In a dissent filed with Madsen's order, Justice James M. Johnson wrote that her order violates the state constitution in two ways: the separation of powers and the delegation of education to the Legislature.