In a unanimous ruling this morning the Washington State Supreme Court found the state in contempt for not coming up with a plan to fully fund K-12 schools by 2018. "The State is in contempt of court for violating the court's order dated January 9, 2014. The State failed to submit by April 30, 2014 a complete plan for fully implementing its program of basic education for each school year between now and the end of the 2017-18 school year."
In December 2012, the Court ruled that the state was not meeting its constitutional duty to fund schools and ordered them to do so. Legislative partisan squabbling in the subsequent 2013 biennial budgeting session and the 2014 supplemental budgeting session produced little in the way of meeting the mandate, which non-partisan staff estimated would cost an additional $1.4 billion in the 2013-15 budgeting cycle, an additional $2 billion in the 2015-17 cycle, and an additional $1.2 billion in the 2017-19 cycle on top of the standard $15 billion per biennium the state already spends on K-12.
In the 2013 session, the legislature put an extra $980 million into K-12 funding, but much of it was unsustainable one-time money. Additionally, the state needs to find about $400 million in teachers' salaries, putting them about $5 billion in the red for K-12 education overall.
The Court has issued two rulings already this year—one at the beginning of 2014 ordering the legislature to come up with the funding, and again in June 2014, after the legislature gestured with $350 million extra in K-12 funding while failing to come up with any bigger plan. The Court ordered the state to appear in September to say why they shouldn't be held in contempt for not following the Court's order.
"These orders are not advisory or designed to get the legislature's 'attention'; the court expects them to be obeyed."—Today's unanimous WA State Supreme Court McCleary ruling
The state made its case in front of the Court last week, essentially arguing that a contempt ruling would throw the already politically-charged process sideways and the Court should simply trust the state to come up with a plan in the upcoming 2015-17 budgeting session next year.
During the September 3 hearing, justices practically scoffed at state counsel's assurances, with Justice Charles Wiggins citing the famous definition of insanity: he accused the legislature of doing the same thing over and over again—not funding schools—while expecting the Court to look the other way.
Today's ruling did not issue any remedy, however. In June the Court floated a batch of threats: impose monetary sanctions, prohibit other expenditures until the state fully funded K-12, order specific K-12 funding legislation, order the sale of state property to fund K-12 education, invalidate education cuts to the budget, and prohibit any funding of an unconstitutional (i.e, underfunded) K-12 system.
And during last week's hearing, Justice Charles Johnson, one of the conservatives on the Court, floated another one: Repealing the 600 tax breaks on the books, forcing the legislature into a sort of reverse zero-based budgeting game, where they'd have to wrestle with reauthorizing each one as they simultaneously tried to come up with a school funding plan. Closing tax breaks in order to fund K-12 education ("I choose education over tax breaks" Gov. Jay Inslee said when he proposed closing $500 million in tax breaks to fund K-12) has been a Democratic agenda item since the original McCleary ruling came down—one that the house Democrats pursued in April. The Republicans eschewed that approach, demanding more education policy reforms. (Footnote, though: The Court based its original McCleary demand on bipartisan 2009 policy reform legislation , which kind of recasts the GOP's current mantra about not funding the McCleary reforms until the legislature passes more reforms as an obstructionist loop.)
The Court found the state in contempt today, but rather than issuing remedies, they held them over the legislature's head, saying: "The state has suggested throughout these proceedings that the court may be approaching its constitutional bounds and entering into political and policy matters reserved to the legislature. But as the court has repeatedly stated, it does not wish to dictate the means by which the legislature carries out its constitutional responsibility ... Rather, the court has fulfilled its constitutional role to determine whether the State is violating constitutional commands, and having held that it is, the court has issued orders within its authority directing the State to remedy its violation. ... These orders are not advisory or designed to get the legislature's 'attention'"—a reference to the state's argument last week that the legislature had prioritized K-12 funding for the upcoming legislative session—"the court expects them to be obeyed."
Chief Justice Barbara Madsen signed this morning's unanimous ruling, which concluded a bit more cordially, giving the legislature one last chance to get right:
The court unanimously finds the State in contempt for failing to comply with the court’s January 9, 2014 order. The question remains whether sanctions are immediately warranted. The State has assured the court that education funding is the legislature’s top priority and that the legislature is determined to (and the State expects it to) take meaningful action in the 2015 budget session. In the interest of comity and continuing dialogue between the branches of government, the court accepts the State’s assurances that it will be compliant by the end of the 2015 session. Thus, the court will not presently impose sanctions or other remedial measures, and will provide the State the opportunity to purge the contempt during the 2015 legislative session by complying with the court’s order. If the contempt is not purged by adjournment of the 2015 legislature, the court will reconvene and impose sanctions or other remedial measures.
Appearing to expect the contempt of court ruling (it was clearly going to go against the State), Gov. Inslee issued a statement today saying: "This unprecedented action by the Supreme Court is a critical moment in our history. No one should be surprised, yet no one should minimize the court’s order. I urged lawmakers to act this year and agreed with the court that we must do more to adequately fund education, which I believe is both a constitutional and moral obligation. The Legislature now must act before it adjourns next year or face the yet to be determined sanctions."
State senate Democratic floor leader Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-23, Kistasp) said: “I believe the Court has done us a favor. I was alarmed last year to watch some in the legislature completely dismiss the Court’s directive. I hope today’s announcement will convince everyone that the Court is not only serious, but that we have difficult decisions to make that will require real compromise to reach real solutions.”
(Sen. Rolfes is referring to Republican Sen. Michael Baumgartner's (R-6, Spokane) legislation last year, which--flagging separation of powers--mocked the Court for telling the legislature what to do. So, Baumgartner decided to tell the Court what to do. Turning the tables, he introduced legislation which quoted sections of the Court's own McCleary language in a bill that would have required the Court to increase the number of cases it hears annually. Sen. Baumgartner also directed defiant tweets at the Court last session.)
We've asked the GOP for their reaction to today's Court ruling.