If you were under a court order to fix the state’s school system, you might think you’d be holed up at the Capitol, working furiously on the issue.
Yet for most of Washington’s 147 state lawmakers, that is not the case.
They are in overtime after failing to come up with a two-year state budget within 105 days. But halfway through their 30-day special session, only a handful of legislators are meeting regularly in Olympia to address the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary ruling, which said the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional duty to fully fund public schools.
A few lawmakers are at the Capitol, working on the larger two-year budget, but leaders say those negotiations mostly are stalled until they can agree on how to approach the McCleary problem.
Pretty much everyone else is back at home.
“In a citizen legislature, you’ve got to expect that people go back to their regular lives after session is done,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. “Until you have an agreement, there’s no reason for them to be here.”
As a result, the marble halls of the Capitol — normally buzzing with lobbyists, lawmakers and staff members zipping between offices during session — are eerily empty.
This week, the building was nearly silent, outside of few tourists taking photos and security guards chatting.
Hanging over the tranquil scene is the high court’s recent threat to lawmakers: Come up with a plan to take on the full cost of basic education by the time you adjourn this year, or we will impose new — and potentially more painful — sanctions.
In a citizen legislature, you’ve got to expect that people go back to their regular lives after session is done. Until you have an agreement, there’s no reason for them to be here.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington
Already, the state is in contempt of court over lawmakers’ lack of progress.
In 2015, the court upped the ante by fining the state $100,000 a day until lawmakers submitted a plan to take on school-employee salary costs that are being paid unconstitutionally by local school districts.
To date, those fines — which the court asked lawmakers to place in a separate account to pay for schools — total more than $60 million.
Still, a deal remains elusive, said Sullivan, one of eight lawmakers meeting in private to hammer out an agreement on education policy. Having rank-and-file members of the Legislature on hand while backroom discussions are going on is counterproductive, he said.
Those lawmakers, most of whom aren’t needed until it’s time to vote on a package of bills, are on call, but “have no idea when they’ll be called back.”
“Nobody does,” Sullivan said.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said sending most members home during special sessions saves taxpayers money, because most lawmakers aren’t needed for budget negotiations. The Legislature has operated similarly in the past, he noted.
“Why would we ask the taxpayers to pay per diem for 98 House members and 49 senators if they’re not actively involved in the budget?” Schoesler said, referring to the expense payments lawmakers can claim in addition to their annual salaries when they’re working.
Why would we ask the taxpayers to pay per diem for 98 House members and 49 senators if they’re not actively involved in the budget?
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville
By all accounts, the budget negotiations aren’t moving quickly.
Schoesler said it’s impossible to decide what to include in the two-year budget until after lawmakers agree how much they need to spend on schools.
Previously, he and other Republican lawmakers criticized Democrats for not voting on the $3 billion in taxes they proposed, saying budget negotiations couldn’t begin until after Democrats proved they had the support for their tax plan.
“Until you know where the majority of the budget comes from and how much, you can’t finalize the rest,” Schoesler said. “Maybe the majority leader should bring his taxes up for a vote if he wants to negotiate the budget.”
Sullivan said that while lawmakers are making progress on school-funding issues, he’s frustrated more work isn’t happening on the budget at the same time. He said that since Republicans insist on not working on the details of the rest of the two-year spending plan until a McCleary agreement is reached, lawmakers undoubtedly will need at least one more 30-day special session to finish their work.
During the past two state budget cycles, lawmakers required multiple special sessions to finalize a budget, teetering on the edge of a July 1 deadline for a government shutdown before reaching an agreement. Republicans control the state Senate with the help of one conservative Democrat, while Democrats have a razor-thin majority in the state House.
“If history is any example, the rest of the budget is going to take a long time,” Sullivan said.
“The public expects us to actually act like grownups and get the work done.”