OLYMPIA — Attorneys for the state told the state Supreme Court on Wednesday that they are on the path to comply with a court order to fully fund the state’s basic education system and that a contempt order and sanctions should be lifted.
But an attorney for the group that sued the state told the justices that the state has made similar unfulfilled promises before and compared the ongoing debate to a merry-go-round.
In an 80-minute hearing, the high court’s nine justices peppered the attorneys on each side with pointed questions related to the case in which the court must ultimately decide: Has the state presented an adequate plan in response to the court’s 2012 ruling that said lawmakers were not meeting their constitutional responsibility to fully pay for basic education?
If not, should the court increase pressure on the state?
Tom Ahearne, an attorney for the coalition of school districts, parents, teachers and education groups that sued the state, said the court needs to do the latter, either by shutting down the schools in the 2017 school year or closing hundreds of tax exemptions passed by the Legislature in order to find the money needed for compliance.
He criticized the state’s most recent plan — passed by the Legislature earlier this year — as “another example of this merry-go-round we’ve been on.”
That plan did not say exactly where lawmakers will find the rest of the money they need, but instead established a task force to find the state dollars needed to replace some local levy spending and instructs the 2017 Legislature to finish the work.
It also instructs the task force to make recommendations on teacher pay and asks for clarification on how local levies are used. The bipartisan task force has been meeting throughout the summer, most recently Tuesday.
Its report is due Jan. 9, the first day of the 2017 legislative session.
“This isn’t an example of the state being asleep at the switch; they’ve been staring right at the switch and knowing it’s there and just ignoring until the very last second,” Ahearne said.
The court previously found the state in contempt in 2014 for its lack of progress and last year imposed $100,000-a-day sanctions that have been accumulating for more than a year and which are supposed to be set aside into an education account.
Lawmakers did not allocate that money when writing a supplemental budget earlier this year, but there is enough money in reserves to cover the amount of the sanctions, which is currently about $39 million, according to the Office of Financial Management.
Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said she was frustrated because it seemed like the state focused on how much they had to spend, while the court “is really looking at the process.”
“It seems to me that the number is not nearly as significant as to settle on a source of funding or a plan on how schools will be amply resourced,” she said.
Deputy Solicitor General Alan Copsey said he agreed, in part.
“We’re interested in achieving full funding, not a magical dollar amount,” he said. But he noted that even if they took all of the money from several state agencies, the governor’s office and the Legislature, they would probably still fall short of the expected funding requirements.
“This is a big lift for the Legislature,” he said. “If we’re going to have a successful budget plan, we need to have one that is accepted by the public and is sustainable over time. And that is not something that necessarily can be done overnight.”
The state Supreme Court ruled in the 2012 McCleary decision — named for Stephanie McCleary, a Sequim native who is a Chimacum parent and school district human resources director — that the state must fund basic education by 2018 and that the use of local levies to cover the costs of basic education is unconstitutional.
Since the 2012 ruling, lawmakers have spent more than $2 billion to address issues raised in the lawsuit.
State officials have estimated that the costs related to that court mandate are at least another $3 billion.
“If I’m running a marathon and I’m 15 miles into that marathon, you can’t say I’ve done nothing,” Copsey told the justices. “The Legislature is making progress. It hasn’t finished.”