The Washington Legislature is off parole, in a manner of speaking. The state Supreme Court’s nine justices agreed this month to lift their contempt order from 2014 – and halt the $100,000 daily fines – against the lawmaking body.
Whether voters feel gratitude or contempt for legislators is something we’ll learn more about during the summer and fall as state House and Senate elections warm up.
That ruling said the state was failing to meet its constitutional duty to amply fund basic education. And it said the state was relying illegally on local, voter-approved property-tax levies to subsidize "basic education" costs that the state was legally obligated to pay directly.
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That it took legislators six years to respond fully is testament to the difficulty of doing big, expensive things in our era.
Big things are often hard to do politically. But a politically divided state with a politically divided Legislature just made it harder.
To their credit, legislators of both parties finally agreed in 2017 on a bipartisan budget they claimed would fully fund schools and phase-out the excessively high local tax-levy subsidies.
But it wasn't until they agreed this year to funnel roughly $1 billion more from the state into K-12 schools that the Legislature actually met the court’s September 2018 deadline for full funding. Republicans in the Senate had resisted the extra expenditures in 2017.
But after Senate Democrats gained one seat last November, which gave them chamber’s majority for the first time since 2012, the budget move was easier to approve.
Only then did the justices obligingly lift their contempt order, which had acted four almost four years as a kind of informal probation for an incorrigible Legislature.
It is not credible to think lawmakers would have made such a multibillion-dollar commitment to K-12 funding if the justices had relinquished control of the case after 2012 – a mistake made by the court in the 1970s in a similar case.
So, good move, justices!
Though we still criticize the Legislature for not doing more sooner, we must congratulate lawmakers for finally taking their constitutional duty seriously.
But as was noted here a few weeks ago, the work of fully funding Washington’s public school system is not truly done.
Some school districts such as Olympia have veteran teaching staffs that are more costly to pay for. The new state formula for pay allocating state dollars to local districts won’t be enough for many South Sound districts to cover after the 2018-19 school year.
Many districts plan to collect less in state and local taxes in the future than they are banking on in the coming school year. That is because local levy subsidies start to run out or can be used only for educational enhancements.
Also, special education allotments from the state are already too small to cover actual district costs today. After McCleary, local districts should not be patching these kinds of budget holes with levies.
The upshot is that the biggest unfinished job is tax-reform. This difficult work is needed to ensure that school budgets are mostly paid by the state well into the future.
The short term outlook is good. The Economic and Revenue Forecast Council released its quarterly revenue forecast last week, predicting there will be more than $500 million extra coming into the state treasury over the next three years than the council had predicted in February.
That good news assumes that our expanding Northwest economy continues to grow. That is uncertain as President Trump unleashes tariffs against imports, which could spur a trade-war with China and other countries and harm our trade-dependent state.
As we saw in 2008, our tax system is vulnerable in recessions because it is so heavily reliant on sales taxes, direct taxes on businesses and real estate taxes.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget director told agency directors recently that they should plan to operate with little or no new funding in the 2019-21 budget cycle.
But progress needs to continue on K-12 funding. That means new approaches to paying for government that spread out the burden.
Finding a way to shift the state away from its heavy reliance on sales taxes and direct taxes on in-state business activities is one good place to start. Finding a way to make the burden fairer across the state's wide spectrum of rich and poor residents is another.