With its order handed down Thursday that chastised the Legislature for moving too slow on fully funding basic education in K-12 schools, the state Supreme Court turned the upcoming 2014 session upside down. With no budget shortfall to fight over and an election year looming for most legislators, the shortened 60-day session was shaping up to be a do-nothing event.
But in its 9-page order, eight of the nine justices scolded the Legislature for a “troubling … lack of progress,” and set a April 30 deadline to deliver a year-by-year plan for meeting the funding mandate of the McCleary decision. Failure to meet the deadline would set up a unique conflict between branches of government.
The court’s ruling is right on the money.
State Superintendent Randy Dorn warned the Legislature before last year’s session that it must find somewhere between $3.4 billion and $4.6 billion for the 2013-2015 biennium to satisfy the court’s McCleary ruling.
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He gave the Legislature an “incomplete” grade for finding only $982 million, which the court calculated as “a modest 6.7 percent above current funding levels that violate the constitution.”
Dorn unveiled his own “sequester-style” proposal Thursday that would raise sales tax by 1 percent and raise property taxes in 2018 if lawmakers fail to comply with the court’s order.
But that shouldn’t be necessary. Lawmakers must add at least $461 million to the supplemental budget, if not the full $544 million that Dorn is requesting. That’s still far short of meeting the McCleary requirements, but it would send a good faith message to the court.
As the court said, “the need for immediate action could not be more apparent.”
If lawmakers can’t agree to add more dollars to basic education this session, the court could hold the Legislature in contempt. Washington doesn’t need a potential constitutional crisis.
But the court is prepared to act if the state does not “demonstrate, through immediate, concrete action, that it is making real and measurable progress, not simply promises.”
We’re in this mess in large part because two Democrats crossed the aisle before the 2013 session, giving Republicans control of the Senate.
A tea party mentality among a significant portion of the Republican caucus — who are determined to oppose tax increases — blocked passage of any meaningful revenue bills, including more for education and a transportation package. That ideological divide led to serious budget disagreements and eventually forced the Legislature into several special sessions that came close to a government shutdown.
Mukiteo watch salesman Tim Eyman is threatening to add to the state’s problems with his worst-ever initiative that would cut the sales tax by 1 percent — about $1 billion in revenue — if lawmakers don’t approve a public vote on a constitutional amendment to require a two-thirds majority on all tax increases.
It’s a bad idea at the worst possible time. The initiative probably breaks the single-subject rule, making it a candidate for post-election litigation, and it’s a solution in search of a problem (or employment for Eyman).
The initiative puts a gun to legislators’ heads and complicates the work they must do in this session.
We don’t see how lawmakers can satisfy the Supreme Court without creating new revenue. The economy is improving, but not at the light-speed pace necessary to cover the education funding gap.
Lawmakers should start by closing many of the state’s obsolete tax loopholes. But that’s won’t be enough.
The answer is for moderate Republicans to break from their no-tax colleagues and work with Democrats on a reasonable bipartisan plan that satisfies the court.