Washington

Lawmakers disagree about deadline for fixing school-funding problems

A small group of demonstrators stand on the steps of the Temple of Justice and in view of the Legislative Building as they advocate for more state spending on education prior to a hearing before the state Supreme Court Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014, in Olympia, Wash.
A small group of demonstrators stand on the steps of the Temple of Justice and in view of the Legislative Building as they advocate for more state spending on education prior to a hearing before the state Supreme Court Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014, in Olympia, Wash. The Associated Press

A few weeks ago, it looked as if state lawmakers would respond to a contempt order from the state Supreme Court by promising to fix school-funding problems next year.

Now, it’s unclear whether the Legislature even plans to do that.

A bill designed to respond to the Supreme Court’s latest ruling in the McCleary school-funding case was altered Thursday by a Senate committee, angering minority Senate Democrats.

Lawmakers in Washington state are under a court order to take on basic education costs that are being borne unconstitutionally by local school districts. In August, the high court began issuing daily $100,000 sanctions over the Legislature’s repeated failure to submit a court-ordered plan to fully fund public schools by 2018.

A school-funding plan that passed the state House earlier this week would commit to fixing remaining funding problems by the end of the Legislature’s 2017 session, which is scheduled to conclude in April that year.

But the version of the plan now moving forward in the Senate would commit instead to completing the work “by 2018.”

Many of us have been uncomfortable with the weakness of the underlying bill, and this just takes it one step further in terms of lowering the bar.

State Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, on changing details of bill promising court-ordered education funding fixes

On Thursday, Democrats and nonpartisan committee staff said that is a more ambiguous deadline that could allow negotiations to stretch on an extra year.

“It means by Dec. 31, 2018,” said state Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane. “We’re just pushing it out even more, beyond the deadline set by the state Supreme Court.”

Republican leaders, however, argued that the 2018 deadline is one legislators have been operating under for years. Originally in the McCleary case, the high court ruled in 2012 that lawmakers were failing to meet their constitutional duty to fully fund public schools and must do so by 2018.

Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, said his expectation when voting for the revised deadline was that lawmakers would still complete work on school-funding fixes by the end of 2017, before the 2018 calendar year begins.

“The intent is to abide by the original deadline,” said Fain, who is the majority floor leader in the Senate.

Amendments to the school plan passed on a 5-4 party line vote Thursday in the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.

The intent is to abide by the original deadline.

State Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, on changes to proposed deadline for fixing school funding problems

Both McCleary-related bills, Senate Bill 6195 and House Bill 2366, originally included the 2017 deadline when they came out of a bipartisan work group convened by Gov. Jay Inslee. Inslee, a Democrat, formed the work group of eight lawmakers in August to address the court’s latest contempt ruling.

Democrats in the House and Senate this week characterized the Republican changes as backing away from the work group’s bipartisan agreement. State Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said the amendment Thursday “significantly weakens” the plan.

“Many of us have been uncomfortable with the weakness of the underlying bill, and this just takes it one step further in terms of lowering the bar,” said Rolfes, one of the senators who serves on the McCleary work group.

Fain, however, said it’s common for proposals negotiated by small groups of lawmakers to change as they move through the Legislature.

“That’s how legislation is supposed to work,” Fain said, saying it would be inappropriate for other lawmakers to be “shut out” of the process.

While lawmakers have boosted education funding in several areas in recent years, they still need to deal with what the court has called an unconstitutional use of local property tax levies to pay for basic education costs, including teacher salaries.

I wish we were doing more and wish it was stronger ... That’s not where we find ourselves today.

Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, one of Senate Republicans’ past leaders on education-funding issues

Inslee said Thursday that lawmakers need to make those funding fixes during their 2017 session so that school districts can have the money in time for the 2017-18 school year.

“That is the date, the IOU if you will, to our children,” Inslee said, adding that he is optimistic that lawmakers will come to an agreement to meet that deadline.

Neither of the bills that came out of Inslee’s work group proposes how to pay for school employee salaries and other costs that must be shifted from local school districts to the state.

Instead, the bills would gather more detailed data from school districts about their basic education costs, and direct a task force to make recommendations on how much funding the state must add.

Even some Senate Republicans who supported changing the deadline in the school-funding plan expressed disappointment Thursday that the bill doesn’t go further.

“I wish we were doing more and wish it was stronger, and wish we were solving the problem for our students,’ said state Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup. “That’s not where we find ourselves today.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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