OLYMPIA – While lawyers joust before the state Supreme Court over whether to find the state legislature in contempt, there will be a very real price to pay for residents of the Evergreen State.
The state’s highest court held a show cause hearing last Wednesday because plaintiffs in the McCleary case feel lawmakers should be found in contempt and sanctioned for what they see as lack of action by the legislature in fully funding K-12 education.
Plaintiffs in the McCleary case, which include a number of parents and school districts – including the Sunnyside School District – were victorious in January 2012. That’s when the state Supreme Court found legislators were not meeting their “paramount duty,” as described in the state constitution, to fund K-12 education.
The court ordered lawmakers to develop a detailed plan in April 2014 explaining how they will pay for schools through 2018. The legislature did not comply, which prompted plaintiffs to seek charges of contempt.
“Call a spade a spade”
Last Wednesday, attorney Alan Copsey presented the state’s case against finding the legislature in contempt.
“Failure to comply does not demand an order of contempt,” Copsey contended. Rather, he says the order “…could in fact divert the conversation” and be a counterproductive tactic.
Copsey asked the court to wait until after the 2015 session to give lawmakers time to write an operating budget and pass legislation to fund education.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Thomas Ahearne was blunt.
“Call a spade a spade. They’re in contempt, don’t be afraid to say the word ‘contempt’,” Aheaerne told the court. “The reason for a sanction is to coerce the person who is not complying to actually comply.”
Ahearne called on justices to demand lawmakers submit a plan by the end of this year. If the legislature fails, he said sanctions should be applied.
Legislators are watching the Supreme Court proceedings closely, including those representing the Yakima Valley’s 15th district.
“I think right now most legislators are expecting common sense to prevail…to let the legislature do its job and the court do its job,” said Rep. Bruce Chandler (R-Zillah).
“I believe the courts are on a slippery slope regarding the separation of powers if they find the legislature in contempt, so I don’t anticipate them taking that action,” said Sen. Jim Honeyford.
Honeyford (R-Sunnyside) estimates it will cost about $2 billion to fund the McCleary mandate, plus another $3 or $4 billion to fund voter-approved I-1351, which decreases class sizes.
He sees the 2015 session stretching through the end of June as legislators struggle to come up with the money.
Speaking of money, all options appear to be on the table.
During last Wednesday’s hearing a discussion point by one justice was the possibility of wiping out all state tax exemptions at a savings of about $30 billion…more than enough to fund the state’s educational needs.
Honeyford expressed caution on that perspective, noting many of the exemptions are in place to encourage jobs and economic growth. In the Yakima Valley, alone, he pointed to exemptions that help promote industries such as warehouses and manufacturing equipment.
Minus those exemptions, the area could stand to lose jobs. He noted the example of Grant County, which lost out on a company locating a server farm there because tax exemptions for that industry were allowed to expire. “Oregon got the jobs, we didn’t,” said Honeyford.
“Ample resources to fund education”
There, of course, is the option to rely on raising taxes and fees.
Yet, there is risk in paying the McCleary/I-1351 price tag on new revenue sources alone.
For example, Honeyford estimates the state could hike the sales tax rate another 2 percent to fund the whole thing. Yakima County residents would pay sales taxes of about 9.8 percent under that scenario.
Instead, Honeyford thinks it’s likely lawmakers will strive to meet somewhere in the middle to pay for McCleary/I-1351.
He feels there will be a compromise of new taxes and cuts in services…and possibly repealing some tax exemptions.
“We’ll be looking at all state programs and seeing which are really essential and necessary,” he said. “I would think we’d do the same thing on the tax exemptions.”
One positive note is that current revenues are expected to increase by $3 billion. Rep. David Taylor says some of that will help the legislature meet the McCleary/I-1351 costs.
“I believe the legislature should pass a stand-alone education budget before considering any other spending and have co-sponsored legislation to do that,” says Taylor (R-Moxee). “With increased revenue of roughly 7.5 percent each biennium, there is ample resources to fund education if the legislature prioritizes spending.”
Waiting for a decision
For now, all lawmakers can do is wait for the court to act.
As of this morning (Monday), the court had not handed down a decision on whether to find the legislature in contempt.
“I don’t think anybody has a clue right now, except maybe the justices,” says Chandler.