Callaghan: Inslee must show justices progress on school funding

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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Somewhere between declaring victory and being sworn in comes the realization that while the campaign was hard, governing is harder.

Such is the place where Gov.-elect Jay Inslee finds himself. For whatever reason, maybe because he believes it, Inslee ran as a combination of fiscal conservative and eternal optimist when it comes to the state's budget crisis.

The problems all stem from a lack of jobs, the former congressman said. Once his policies put people back to work, budget problems would correct themselves. That rising-tide-lifts-all-boats strategy will lift the biggest boat of all: education.

He is correct in one respect. State fiscal history has demonstrated that a budget overly dependent on consumer spending gets healthy once people start spending again. But he is incorrect in another -- that our education-funding problems that led to the intervention of the state Supreme Court earlier this year will be cured as soon as good times return. In 31/2 decades since the high court first interpreted the constitutional requirement that the state make education its paramount duty, there have been many periods of surplus. During each, more money was put into schools. But each subsequent recession led to cuts. So any fixes based on the McCleary school-funding decision must be far more recession-proof than in the past. Only by concluding that once good times return they will never again go away can the Inslee plan meet the court's order.

Then there's the side issue of local school levies. In both good times and bad, the Legislature and a series of governors have taken the easiest way out by putting an increasing burden on local taxpayers and local school levies. That has again led to an abdication of state responsibilities and an unconstitutional funding gap between rich and poor districts.

Rather than rule and hope for the best as it did in 1978, the court retained jurisdiction as a way of making sure the Legislature and the governor follow the constitution. In a recent KING-TV interview, Inslee gave his first indication that his campaign rhetoric might give way to governing reality. Rather than repeat an ill-thought-out attack on a proposal to change the relationship between local levies and the state property tax, Inslee offered to keep an "open door and an open mind."

The so-called "levy swap" would see local school levies reduced in both rate and total while increasing the state tax by a similar amount. On average, taxpayers would pay the same, though some in wealthier areas would pay more and those in poorer areas would pay less.

In an op-ed article printed in The Seattle Times over the weekend, state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, called the swap the "best bad idea we have." It would collect more money at the state level, where the Supreme Court says school funding should come from, and it would collect less at the local level, from which the court says less funding should come. No one thinks this is the complete solution. But not doing something like it makes the McCleary problem worse.

Inslee also laid out a view of the relationship between the legislative and executive branches and the Supreme Court that just might rankle the court. After saying the solution to McCleary is a multi-year effort, Inslee said "we're not going to resolve the McCleary decision in the next 12 months. The Supreme Court is going to have to recognize that they do not have a printing press and neither do we, for cash." First will come jobs and economic recovery, then resolution of school-funding gaps.

The court's justices recognized a solution will take some time; they set 2018 as a deadline. But they also said they expect lawmakers to "show real and measurable progress towards achieving full compliance" and ordered a report at the end of each legislative session.

Only an eternal optimist should think the court will let the next session come and go and not expect to see some real progress. Being lectured on patience by the governor-elect isn't progress -- it's status quo.