Legal concerns stall education panel

Report due to courtby Sept. 17; group has yet to meet

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SEATTLE — Washington lawmakers plan to argue right up until a Sept. 17 deadline about what they should tell the Supreme Court about how they'll fix the way the state pays for K-12 education.

In July, the court gave the Legislature two months to file its first report on what they were doing in answer to a January ruling that 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 spending plan didn't include any cuts to education, but lawmakers will continue to scramble to find money to pay for government services when they meet again in January.

All summer, various legislative committees focused on education have been meeting, but the one committee assigned by lawmakers to report back to the Supreme Court has yet to convene.

The Senate members of that committee wanted to meet at the end of August to talk about the report, but House members had legal concerns and declined to meet, said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.

She said the debate came down to one issue: Was the assignment by the Supreme Court something the Legislature should deal with in a public committee? Or was it an issue of attorney-client privilege -- and therefore the lawyers representing the Legislature should handle all communications with the court?

Committee members have been working on a solution, say Rolfes and Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia. Staff has been in touch with every committee member individually to discuss the report and will have a draft ready for discussion at a meeting next week, probably on Wednesday in the Seattle area, said Rep. Jaime Pedersen, D-Seattle.

Pedersen said there was never a question whether the committee would meet to discuss the report in a public way. He said this process has mirrored the usual way the Legislature does its work, with staff members preparing analyses and fiscal reports on bills before a committee meets to discuss them.

Everything else about the Legislature communicating directly with the Supreme Court is unique, acknowledged Pedersen, who is a lawyer with experience in constitutional issues.

"I think the Supreme Court has taken itself into really difficult and unchartered waters by asserting for itself some oversight over the fundamental power of the legislative branch, which is the power of the purse," Pedersen said.

He said, however, that lawmakers were gratified that the Supreme Court decided to communicate directly with the Legislature, as they had requested, instead of assigning someone or some agency to be a go-between.

The report due Sept. 17 is the first of at least six the Supreme Court requested in its July ruling. The other reports are due 60 days after the governor signs the state budget each year.