Count on bickering to continue in school funding talks

One word threatens to create endless bickering among state lawmakers in 2013, and it is “McCleary.”

It’s shorthand for the monumental ruling by the state Supreme Court in January that spanked lawmakers and Gov. Chris Gregoire for not adequately funding Washington’s public school system.

The justices told those in power in Olympia to get their act together and live up to their constitutional obligation quickly. Complying will cost billions of dollars, so lawmakers and the governor figure to chip away at it over the next few years.

Gregoire grabbed attention Tuesday with her call for a $1 billion down payment in the next two years using money from a new tax on sales of gasoline and diesel and the extension of a pair of business-related taxes.

But what may prove to be a more important McCleary-related episode came a day earlier in Federal Way where the final meeting of the bipartisan Joint Task Force on Education Funding devolved into partisan ping-pong between Democrat and Republican members unable to reach agreement on anything — and poking each other for the failure.

Their collapse at consensus following months of meetings surprised few given their extremely tall marching order to design a path to fully funding the basic education of a million schoolchildren.

What had people talking Monday was the absence of the panel’s two Republican senators, Steve Litzow of Mercer Island and Joe Fai, of Auburn.

Just a week earlier, they became part of a new majority coalition in the Senate, the result of the political marriage of the 23 Republicans and two conservative Democrats. For Litzow, it means he’ll become chairman of the Senate education committee.

Monday’s finale provided an opportunity for the fledgling alliance to lay out an approach on McCleary and demonstrate its intent to put policy ahead of politics as its founders pledged.

But instead, Litzow and Fain miffed other task force members, including Republicans, by skipping out. Litzow was in Olympia for a coalition meeting.

Commenting by email through a spokesman, Litzow said he thought the committee was interesting and was happy that they got a lot of the numbers down. And, he said, he is looking forward to a vigorous debate in the Legislature as lawmakers figure out how to build a world-class education system.

And that debate will be vigorous as Monday’s meeting revealed.

The panel’s four Democrats, two from the House and two from the Senate, were joined by two Gregoire appointees in approving a recommendation to pump $1.4 billion into schools in the next two years and rely on new revenue to cover the tab.

They didn’t identify any specific streams of cash, deciding instead to send a whole list to the Legislature to consider in January. Among them were extending taxes, as suggested by Gregoire, and increasing the state’s property tax.

The panel’s two Republican House members voted against the Democrat’s idea. They countered that there’s enough money in the existing reservoir of state funds to meet the mandate of McCleary, making any new or higher taxes unnecessary.

When Democrats demanded to know what spending in the budget would be eliminated or reduced to cover the school costs, Republicans didn’t have a specific answer.

They proceeded to bicker over the lack of details.

You can count on their bickering to continue in the new year.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com.

Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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