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In Our View: Do Better, Legislature

Special session’s start another reminder of lack of progress on school funding

The Columbian
Published: April 25, 2017, 6:03am

Overtime sessions in the Washington Legislature long ago stopped being “special” while taking up residence in the “mundane” category.

So it is that lawmakers launched a special session Monday, providing an indictment of their failure to reach agreement on a two-year budget during the 105-day legislative session. Notably, they allowed the session to pass without substantive negotiations on how the state will meet the school-funding mandate spelled out in the Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary v. Washington ruling. While there is plenty of room for finger-pointing in Olympia, taxpayers throughout the state are only left to shake their heads.

Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, have proposed a budget that includes $3 billion in new taxes for the biennium, much of it from a new capital gains tax. Republicans, who control the Senate with help from one conservative Democrat, have proposed changes to the state’s property-tax structure with a plan that would raise taxes in urban areas and replace local school levies.

The only point of agreement is that the Legislature must fully fund basic education, which is defined by the state constitution as lawmakers’ paramount duty. For decades, Washington school districts have relied upon local levies to pay for basics such as teacher salaries because the Legislature has shirked that duty. The McCleary decision ruled that such an approach violates the state constitution, and lawmakers have spent the past six years posturing and preening while doing little to solve the problem.

Hence, the frustration from taxpayers. Rather than arriving at this year’s session with a framework for negotiations, lawmakers have been content to engage in stare-down theatrics while waiting for the other side to blink first. The fact that they have arrived at a special session without being deep into the negotiating process — and that Gov. Jay Inslee has been unable to nudge the process along without doing more than blaming Republicans — is an embarrassment.

So, where do we stand as the special session gets underway? Republicans have urged Democrats to bring their tax increases to a vote before a budget agreement is reached. This included the histrionics of forcing the capital gains tax to the floor of the Senate, with the full intention of defeating it. Meanwhile, Democrats have criticized Republicans’ property-tax plan because it would require a public vote and likely return the entire process to the drawing board.

Both sides need to engage in some give-and-take. The Democrat plan to raise $3 billion in new taxes is unrealistic and would not sit well with taxpayers. The same can be said for a Republican plan that would include vast cuts to social services in order to increase school funding. Yet both parties rigidly cling to ideology that has allowed for little movement.

Time is running out. The Supreme Court has set a deadline of 2018 for a funding plan to be implemented, meaning that it must be finalized during this session. More pressing are a June 30 deadline that will mark the end of the current budget and result in a government shutdown, and a May deadline that will have school districts planning for layoffs if those districts are not assured of next year’s funding.

Throughout the process, both sides have engaged in cynical political displays rather than statesmanship. It is shameful that lawmakers have approached one of the most important policy debates in state history without a sense of urgency or a desire to put solutions above politics. The people of Washington deserve better.