In Our View: Dereliction of Duty

Lawmakers should be embarrassed at their failure to agree on school funding

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The political posturing and rigidity that have marked this year’s legislative session are an embarrassment for the state. Tasked with devising a two-year budget that finally fulfills their obligation to fully fund public education, lawmakers have made little progress. They now are in their second 30-day special session following the regular 105-day session, a fact that demonstrates a dereliction of duty and has poorly served students and taxpayers.

In 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled in McCleary v. Washington that the system for funding K-12 education was unconstitutional. The Legislature had not lived up to its “paramount duty” of providing for schools, leaving districts overly reliant upon local levies. In the years since then, lawmakers have made some progress toward a remedy, knowing all along that this year marked the final chance to meet the court-mandated deadline of 2018.

That didn’t mean that finding a solution would be easy, but it is disappointing that lawmakers have not been up to the task. According to media reports, budget negotiators remain far apart and discussions had been limited until recently. Both Republicans and Democrats, instead, are clinging to intractable positions while hoping the other will blink first.

The Republican-controlled Senate has proposed a plan that would raise property taxes in wealthy areas and lower those taxes in poorer, often rural, districts. In a meeting with The Columbian’s Editorial Board earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee called the proposal a “disguised tax-cut budget masquerading as an education budget.” Inslee said, “It raises about $5.7 billion of property taxes to give tax cuts to the favored Washingtonians … which are the ones that live in their district, while giving a tax increase to the other 40 percent and not financing schools.”

The Democrat-led House of Representatives, meanwhile, has proposed a series of tax increases but has not demonstrated the courage to bring those proposals to a vote.

Neither chamber is on the side of the angels in this dispute, and their obstinance is unacceptable. After promising to work together throughout 2016 and come into this year’s session ready to negotiate, legislative leaders instead have failed their constituents. The eventual result now appears all too predictable: A last-minute agreement that barely beats the June 30 deadline to avoid a government shutdown, but one that is lacking the creativity necessary to appropriately solve the state’s most pressing issue. There is a difference between thoughtful compromise and agreement born of desperation, and the Legislature is becoming more desperate with each passing day.

So, too, are officials at school districts throughout the state. Those officials are attempting to write budgets for the 2017-18 school year while having no idea how much money will be provided by the state or what the source of that money will be. That is an affront to students, all of whom deserve access to a quality education regardless of their ZIP code.

In the end, it is likely the Supreme Court will have the final say. Justices eventually will determine whether the Legislature’s plan adheres to the constitution, and it is notable that The Seattle Times recommended editorially that Inslee should avoid a second special session and simply throw the issue to the court. He rightly eschewed that advice, but there is little reason for confidence that lawmakers will actually perform their jobs.

When citizens who feel passionate about funding for public schools lose faith in their representatives, lawmakers should feel embarrassed.