Legislators in the state of Washington were summoned to court on Wednesday to defend themselves from accusations of what activists say is illegal foot-dragging on the issue of education funding.
The outcome, should the legislators fail, could be the imposition of billions of dollars in tax increases by Washington’s court system.
In 2011, in the case McCleary v. Washington, a coalition of parents, teachers, and school districts sued the state government, claiming it was underfunding education to a degree that it violated the state constitution, which states that the “paramount duty” of the state government is to provide ample education funding. In 2012, the state supreme court agreed, and mandated that Washington increase education spending by over $4 billion a year, an amount that totals over 10 percent of the current state budget.
The legislature was given until 2018 to bring funding up to par. However, over two years after the ruling, the state has taken no action to begin increasing funding, despite two additional court orders demanding immediate action, as Republicans and Democrats have feuded over whether to raise the funds by cutting spending elsewhere or by instituting new taxes.
Delays caused by this debate, activists claim, are unacceptable, and they have now petitioned the state supreme court to hold the legislature in contempt and impose new sanctions upon it in an effort to spur change.
The state, activists argue, should be given a strict deadline of December 31, 2014 to enact a plan for raising the necessary funds, or else face extreme measures from the court system. Extreme measures suggested by the plaintiffs include revoking all exemptions and cuts in the state’s tax code in order to raise funds, levying fines on individual lawmakers, or even shutting down the state school system entirely and only allowing it to reopen once legislators have passed a budget that meets constitutional muster.
Testifying before a standing room-only crowd, Washington deputy solicitor general Alan Copsey begged the court to grant legislators additional time before imposing sanctions. Copsey said the legislature, despite its foot-dragging, had a history of successfully meeting court-imposed deadlines, and should at least be allowed to act in the 2015 legislative session prior to more aggressive court action.
Several justices on the court appeared skeptical, having already seen two orders for imminent action go ignored by the legislature.
“Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? Why should we expect you to do something different?” asked one justice during the hearing.
Thomas Ahearne, representing the plaintiffs, countered that it was necessary for the court to punish the “contempt” of the Washington legislature, which he described as unprecedented. He said that if the court failed to punish lawmakers for their inaction, they would appear weak and signal that legislators are above the law.
“Plaintiffs submit that no one is above the law, that Washington lawmakers should actually obey the law,” Ahearne said. He also placed repeated emphasis on the continued harm to Washington students every year the state failed to act.
“This state is violating children’s constitutional rights…and that violation has continued,” he said. “While all us adults are talking about [this]…the kids are growing up.”
If the court accepts Ahearne’s argument, it will likely trigger a whirlwind emergency session for the state legislature, which could end up running right through the upcoming November elections.
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