Legislators miss first assignment from state Supreme Court

Imagine the domed state Capitol as a classroom, with 147 state lawmakers as students, and you may get a better picture of the challenge facing Washington’s Supreme Court this summer.

Justices in January gave the “students” a two-part assignment, which was due April 30.

They told them they needed to put more money into education, reminding them the state must be paying the full cost of basic education in public schools by 2018.

The other part of their homework required legislators to draw up a timeline showing what will be spent year-to-year, to ensure the state meets the court-imposed deadline in the McCleary case.

Well, those “students” didn’t get either done.

On Wednesday, a bipartisan committee of lawmakers representing the Legislature turned in a required progress report that described how they tried, and how political and philosophical divisions prevented them from completing their assignment.

They also explained that supplemental budgets, like the one adopted in 2014, are not the ideal vehicle for making a billion-dollar investment, as the court might have desired. A decision like that will be best made in 2015 when the next two-year budget is adopted.

And in the 58-page report, lawmakers expressed appreciation of the justices’ prodding to get them to live up to their constitutional obligations for education. But they also not-so-subtly said “Don’t mess with us” in a section arguing why they didn’t think the justices could force them to do the homework as assigned.

How will the court deal with such recalcitrance?

The Supreme Court could deliver another scolding — there have been two so far — then wait to see if lawmakers next year come up with “the grand agreement” they deem necessary for doing as they’ve been told.

Or it could exact punishment, as has happened in other states. In March, the Kansas Supreme Court directed the Legislature to provide more funds for education by July 1, or else part of the state budget will be voided.

Washington justices in January warned of a potentially bumpy road ahead should lawmakers not turn in a completed assignment.

“Our decision in this case remains fully subject to judicial enforcement,” Chief Justice Barbara Madsen wrote. “We have no wish to be forced into entering specific funding directives to the State, or, as some state high courts have done, holding the legislature in contempt of court.”

Lawmakers candidly admit in the report they did not do what the court asked them to do, said Thomas Ahearne, who is the attorney for the plaintiffs.

“Frankly, the Supreme Court is going to have to make a decision,” he said. “They are going to have to decide whether they meant what they said.”

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