Monday, January 27, 2020
Jan. 27, 2020

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Washington Supreme Court holds state in contempt

The Columbian
Published:

Vancouver Public Schools’ superintendent said the state’s top court made the right decision on Thursday when it issued an order holding the Legislature in contempt for not adequately funding the state’s public schools.

“Decades of delay and parsing by the Washington State Legislature should come to an end immediately,” Steven Webb said in a statement. “The Legislature must fulfill its constitutional duty. The Supreme Court got this right. The Legislature is not above the law.”

The Washington Supreme Court did not impose sanctions but said it would if lawmakers do not meet the requirements of the McCleary decision, and adequately fund the state’s education system, by the end of the 2015 legislative session.

Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said that’s always been the plan.

“The Legislature has always intended to deal with it this session,” Harris said, noting a two-year state budget will be drafted when the Legislature convenes in January.

“I believe both sides, both Republicans and Democrats, have said it’s on our top priority list and I believe it will be addressed,” he said.

Vancouver Public Schools' superintendent said the state's top court made the right decision on Thursday when it issued an order holding the Legislature in contempt for not adequately funding the state's public schools.

"Decades of delay and parsing by the Washington State Legislature should come to an end immediately," Steven Webb said in a statement. "The Legislature must fulfill its constitutional duty. The Supreme Court got this right. The Legislature is not above the law."

The Washington Supreme Court did not impose sanctions but said it would if lawmakers do not meet the requirements of the McCleary decision, and adequately fund the state's education system, by the end of the 2015 legislative session.

Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said that's always been the plan.

"The Legislature has always intended to deal with it this session," Harris said, noting a two-year state budget will be drafted when the Legislature convenes in January.

"I believe both sides, both Republicans and Democrats, have said it's on our top priority list and I believe it will be addressed," he said.

In the current biennium lawmakers funneled an additional $1 billion to education. But to meet the court's requirements, the additional funding likely needs to be closer to $3 billion.

"We made some moves, but didn't get as far as we wanted to," said Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver. "Now, both sides will have to negotiate."

Democrats have raised the idea of ending certain tax exemptions, while Republicans have championed funding education first and figuring out what other spending to slash afterward.

"I'm not sure how we'll get there, but that's a conversation we'll have in session and if we don't reach (a deal) we'll be stuck in town until (we) do," Stonier said.

Gov. Jay Inslee called the court's decision "unprecedented," but added it should surprise no one.

The governor called it a "critical moment in our history," and said it will take the "help of everyone in Washington state" to succeed.

-- Lauren Dake

In the current biennium lawmakers funneled an additional $1 billion to education. But to meet the court’s requirements, the additional funding likely needs to be closer to $3 billion.

“We made some moves, but didn’t get as far as we wanted to,” said Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver. “Now, both sides will have to negotiate.”

Democrats have raised the idea of ending certain tax exemptions, while Republicans have championed funding education first and figuring out what other spending to slash afterward.

“I’m not sure how we’ll get there, but that’s a conversation we’ll have in session and if we don’t reach (a deal) we’ll be stuck in town until (we) do,” Stonier said.

Gov. Jay Inslee called the court’s decision “unprecedented,” but added it should surprise no one.

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The governor called it a “critical moment in our history,” and said it will take the “help of everyone in Washington state” to succeed.

— Lauren Dake

SEATTLE — The Washington Supreme Court issued a decision Thursday holding the Legislature in contempt for its lack of progress on fixing the way the state pays for public education but withheld possible punishment until after the 2015 session.

The court promised to reconvene and impose sanctions and other remedial measures if lawmakers do not make plans to solve the problem by the end of that session.

Possible sanctions include fines for the Legislature or individual lawmakers, having the court rewrite the state budget, and revoking tax exemptions.

Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, the leader on education issues for the mostly Republican Majority Coalition Caucus, said no one likes being found in contempt, but he appreciated the tone of the court.

“It needs to get fixed now, but there is some appreciation that there were legislatures well before us that got us into this thing,” he said.

The cost of the reforms has been estimated at $4 billion or more in each biennial state budget.

In its most recent budget, lawmakers added about $1 billion in education funding. However, the split Legislature — Republicans control the Senate, Democrats the House — has been unable to agree on where to cut elsewhere or how to raise taxes to satisfy the court.

Without including education measures in the so-called McCleary decision, the projected shortfall for the next spending period is nearly $1 billion. To satisfy the court, that deficit could be up to $3 billion for the 2015-17 biennium.

A statement signed by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said the high court was not impressed by the Legislature’s explanation about the lack of progress toward paying all the costs of basic education.

“Contempt is the means by which a court enforces compliance with its lawful orders when they are not followed,” she wrote.

The state Supreme Court ruled in January that Washington’s system of education funding is unconstitutional. It gave the Legislature until the 2017-18 school year to fix the problem detailed in a lawsuit by a coalition of teachers, parents, students and community groups.

The coalition’s attorney, Thomas Ahearne, said Thursday’s order was as good as he could hope for because the 2014-15 school year has started and a special legislative session probably wouldn’t help kids this year.

“It wipes out all the excuses that legislators tell themselves why they don’t have to do anything,” said Ahearne.

Most states have faced lawsuits over the way they pay for education, but few have seen that conflict result in a contempt order.

In 1976, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ordered public schools shut down for eight days over the summer after lawmakers failed to put more money into education. That crisis resulted in the adoption of a state income tax.

The Washington court’s order is “a little more drastic than we’ve seen in some of the other states,” said Robert F. Williams, associate director of the Center for State Constitutional Studies at Rutgers University law school.

In the original McCleary decision, the Washington high court commended lawmakers for passing reforms in the K-12 system and for starting to pay for them. Now, they have to finish paying for those reforms and stop relying on local tax-levy dollars to pay some of the expenses, the court said.

Among the reforms awaiting money are all-day kindergarten in every school; more instructional hours for high school students to help them earn 24 credits to graduate; and a new formula for school staffing levels and smaller class sizes.

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