Eight lawmakers entrusted with drafting a school funding plan in line with the tenets of the state constitution and dictates of the Supreme Court won’t complete their task this year.
The contingent of Democratic and Republican lawmakers met for a final time in 2015 on Monday, adjourning without agreement on the contours or content of a proposal to put forth in the 2016 session.
They plan to gather again Jan. 4 — one week before the session begins — with hope but uncertainty of reaching an accord.
“We’re still negotiating. We’re taking our task very seriously,” said Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, who is one of the lawmakers involved in the work group. “What we’re trying to do is craft something that can be well-received in the Legislature.”
What this means is the Legislature will begin 2016 just as it did in 2015: in contempt of a Supreme Court order demanding a blueprint for amply funding public schools by the 2018 deadline set in the McCleary case.
In addition, a $100,000-a-day fine levied by justices in August continues to pile up. Thursday will mark the 127th day of sanctions, which amounts to $12.7 million.
Any notion those sanctions will push lawmakers toward a more rapid conciliation hasn’t occurred as some lawmakers, including a couple members of the McCleary 8, think the Supreme Court exceeded its authority. There is resistance to any action perceived as placating justices.
“Our focus has been on doing the right thing for the education system not on responding to the Supreme Court,” said Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah. “The fines are not really a fine. No one will drop a bill to pay the fine.”
Though the group is not “fixated on the fine issue, there are members, and I am one of them, that would like us to be out of contempt,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.
To recap, the McCleary decision dealt with the entire tab for the basic education of a million students.
Lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee figured out how to spend billions of additional dollars on things like supplies, all-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes and buses in the last two state budgets.
But they are still wrestling with how to end the reliance on local property tax dollars to pay teachers, principals and staff. It will require a new method of compensating school employees with state funds. That will cost money and could see some residents paying new or higher taxes.
The Democrat-controlled House and Republican-run Senate couldn’t find a solution in this year’s record-setting 176 days of session. And their leaders don’t plan on finding one in 2016 — an election year session — either.
Since September, the work group, with help from two of Inslee’s top aides, is deciding what information must be gathered next year so lawmakers are able to take some tough votes in 2017.
They are not negotiating levy rates and salaries but a timeline for collecting data, explained House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, who is in the group.
“If we could agree on a plan we could act early in session,” he predicted. “It shouldn’t be that hard.”
But it has been so far.
Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @dospueblos