Jolt axth2t

Earlier today, an open letter from 19 Republican state senators was hand delivered to leaders in both parties—speaker of the house Frank Chopp (D-43), Republican representative Dan Kristiansen (R-39), and Democratic state leader Sharon Nelson (D-34, West Seattle). The senators condemn the state supreme court’s recent decision to fine the legislature $100,000 per day until a plan is hammered out to fully fund public education by 2018 (e.g., find the missing money for smaller class sizes in all grades and teacher pay hikes that aren’t funded by the recently agreed upon state budget), in accordance with the McCleary ruling.

The letter says the supreme court order is “unconstitutional” and that the order violates the sanctity of the legislature and its ability to govern independently by forcing lawmakers to come back to the table. “The court's sanctions are directly aimed at legislative actions. However, the court has absolutely no authority to force the legislature to tax or appropriate state funds in a particular manner anymore than the legislature could pass a law requiring the court to rule a certain way in a particular case,” the letter reads. It goes on to claim that the court order violates the U.S. constitution and “involves the court and in a political question,” and ends by asking the Democratic leadership to explore options to combat the “constitutional crisis.”

A press release put out earlier today by the senate Republicans media office quoted state senator Michael Baumgartner (R-6) saying “The issue isn’t about education anymore, but about the survival of our form of government.”

Seattle’s Senator Nelson wasn’t impressed with the Republicans’ analysis. “I don’t care what Senate Republicans think of the court’s order,” she said in her own statement released today. “Neither do kids who continue to move through our K–12 system in crumbling schools. Neither do teachers who have to leave the profession they love because they can’t afford to feed their families. Neither do parents who send their kids to overcrowded schools and classrooms year after year.”

The budget agreed upon at the end of the legislature’s additional special session favored Republican interests, with no new tax revenue streams (House Democrats originally proposed enacting a capital gains tax to help fill the deficit) to cover the estimated $1.4 billion required in this biennium, but using an uptick in state tax revenue forecasts from traditional sources (i.e sales tax, property taxes, and B&O taxes) to put $1.3 billion towards covering basic needs such as textbooks and reducing class sizes for grades K–3. However, the legislature hasn’t funded smaller class sizes for students above the third grade (Initiative 1351 was passed by voters last year calling on the legislature to do just that, but lawmakers tabled the issue temporarily in order to come to agreement on the budget). Nor has the legislature addressed the issue of shifting the burden of funding teacher salaries (estimated at $3.5 billion) from local school districts—in other words, property tax levies—to the state, a responsibility the supreme court has deemed to be the legislature's.

Senator David Frockt (D-46, North Seattle) told PubliCola he agrees with Nelson. “I think that they [the court] are in their lane with the escalating orders that they've given us. They didn't come right out to them and say, ‘You must do it this way,'” he said. Last year the court ruled that the state is in contempt of court for not making progress on the McCleary ruling. “The court has shown a lot of restraint to be quite honest with you, and the fact is that they've acknowledged where we've made progress, and we have made some good progress in certain areas. But there's a lot more to do.”

He also noted that the real underlying issue is how the McCleary ruling will be funded, not repeated actions taken by the court to motivate the legislature to find the money. “As usual, this is going to come down to money and where's it going to come from. Is it going to be about cuts? Is it going to be about some additional revenue being brought in?”

“They [the Republicans] can go on and on and on about the court overstepping its bounds, but what's really happening is that this is about the money. It's always about the money,” Frockt added.

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