State leaders react to state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision

The ramifications of yesterday’s state Supreme Court ruling that the state was not yet in compliance with the McCleary school-funding mandate are far from clear. Generally, from published reports, it appears that state leaders welcome the court’s acknowledgment of significant funding progress, accept (as they did this session) that they’ve missed a deadline, and are in a bit of a quandary as to what the ruling means for the 2018 legislative session.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal says in a statement

The Supreme Court largely affirmed the state’s position that most of the mechanisms for full funding of basic education are in place. I agree with that. As the Court wrote, the state “has made significant progress” toward that goal. The Court singled out funding formulas for transportation; materials, supplies and operating costs; and full-day kindergarten as being fully funded and now constitutional…

I applaud the Legislature’s work. They have substantially increased basic education funding during the past three biennia.

But I don’t believe the work is done.

 A statement on state Sen. John Braun’s legislative website says

“Providing students with the support they need and deserve required us to solve a generational problem with a generational solution, which resulted in a historic funding infusion for our schools,” said Braun, R-Centralia, who served as a member of the bipartisan education funding negotiating team. “The Legislature brought this situation on itself by shirking its responsibility to public schools for decades. Over the past five years we have demonstrated that only by making education our top priority could we pay for schools in a way that works for students, teachers and taxpayers. Judging from today’s ruling, our way also works for the court.”

…Today’s court decision pointed out how the 2019 date for final funding doesn’t match the Legislature’s original plan to have changes in place by 2018. Braun said the later date resulted from the complexity of the bipartisan reforms.

“The court has clearly played a critical role in getting the attention of lawmakers and the public with its original ruling and continued oversight,” said Braun. “However, implementing historic funding increases that actually work across 295 school districts and reforming property-tax collections throughout 39 different counties forced us to develop this specific timeline.

Senate Democratic education and fiscal leaders say in a statement,

“We are very pleased that the Legislature and the Supreme Court are in strong agreement that the state has made significant progress on basic education policy, and that some important work remains,” said incoming chair of the Senate Ways & Means Committee, Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Kitsap County…

“I am pleased that the Supreme Court has largely affirmed the work we have done to help students in Washington succeed,” said Senate Democratic Caucus Deputy Leader Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane. “We knew the plan needed to be further refined and will incorporate the court’s guidance in to our work to improve the state’s plan to fund basic education.”

Governor Jay Insee also released a statement,

I’m encouraged the court recognized the incredible progress we’ve made toward fully funding basic education. As the court noted, the plan the Legislature adopted, but for the timing, will meet constitutional requirements.

I share the court’s disappointment that the Legislature did not meet its self-imposed 2018 deadline for fully funding basic education. The plan I put forward nearly a year ago would have done so. 

Notably missing from the early responses is any sense that lawmakers can easily find a billion dollars or so to comply with the court’s deadline. 

The Seattle Times reports on some initial reactions.

When asked about using reserves to meet the 2018 deadline, Tara Lee, spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said the governor’s office is “not ruling anything out.”

Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee and one of the lawmakers involved in crafting the complicated and politically tricky funding plan, said he would not be inclined to use reserves for McCleary. “That’s a tough sell for me,” Taylor said.

And while the story cites some proponents of increased funding who call for progressive tax hikes,

…Taylor, echoing earlier remarks by governor’s office and another GOP lawmaker involved in the McCleary plan, said it’s unlikely lawmakers will make major changes to education funding in 2018.

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers — who now have control of both houses in Olympia — have staked out an early agenda that excludes some of their notable tax proposals.

As The News Tribune reports, there are practical considerations militating against new revenues in 2018.

State Superintendent Chris Reykdal, formerly a Democratic representative, said coming up with a billion dollars is a tough task. He said the complex property-tax plan is already in motion and districts have planned for the amount of money promised by the Legislature. It’s tough to alter that setup across a whole state retroactively, he said.

“You can’t exactly speed that up,” Reykdal said in an interview with The News Tribune and The Olympian.

Any new tax would take time to collect, Reykdal said, meaning it might not even be possible to enact one and raise enough money in time to help the state meet its 2018 deadline.

And the rainy day fund also presents challenges,

The state currently has about $1 billion in traditional reserve accounts and another $1.4 billion in its rainy-day fund, which has limitations on its use.

Even using that would have political hurdles.

Rolfes said using the rainy-day fund generally requires approval from 60 percent the Legislature. That means Democrats would need GOP votes to use money from the account.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler on Wednesday took an early stance against using the rainy-day fund.

“Rainy days are for downturns in the economy, natural disasters, not the Supreme Court,” he said.

More coverage in the Associated Press, the Northwest News Network,  and the Columbian.
While the court’s decision changes the fiscal conversation in Olympia, the conversations themselves are just beginning. And it’s not lawmakers only that are uncertain (or, maybe, just silent) on what their options are. The Seattle Times Q&A on McCleary concludes,
If the Legislature doesn’t enact a final fix by the end of its session next year, the justices warned they will immediately consider “additional remedial measures” on top of a $100,000 per day fine they placed on the state in 2015. They did not say what other sanctions might be on the table.