In 2009 I voted against an â€œeducation reformâ€ bill that, amidst devastating cuts, promised fully-funding K-12 education by 2018. As I asked then, how could we expect future Legislatures to possess the courage of our convictions if even we didnâ€™t possess that courage?
The 2009 billâ€™s promise was to avoid litigation, now known as the â€œMcCleary case,â€ over K-12 funding inadequacy. The Washington state Supreme Court saw through the smokescreen and, in August 2015, began imposing a $100,000 daily contempt-of-court fine upon the Legislature for not progressing toward its self-imposed goal.
This yearâ€™s never-ending legislative process produced what Gov. Jay Inslee proclaimed â€œa historic budget that fully funds our schools for the first time in more than 30 years.â€ Other Democrats echoed his exultations, labeling â€œDemocraticâ€ a budget borne out of a Republican Senate, a claim that ignores nine Senate Democratic no votes, and frothing in a press release that it â€œadds $7.3 billion to Washington schools.â€
Not so fast: Education isnâ€™t fully-funded.
The $7.3 billion figure reportedly fails to subtract billions lost from local property tax revenues. The Legislature has added by subtraction before, as it did in 2013 by shamelessly counting $295.5 million in denied K-12 cost-of-living increases toward a â€œ$1 billion funding increase.â€ Itâ€™s doubtful the high court will be fooled.
Political triumphalism is inevitable. But Carter McCleary was 7 years old when the McCleary litigation was filed. He graduated from high school last month. My son starts high school this fall. Am I wrong to feel impatient about the state meeting its constitutional â€œparamount dutyâ€?
I also worry about the budgetâ€™s unsustainability. As a House member, I voted against budgets on that basis.
The 2007 budget, for example, was â€œbalancedâ€ by breaking a 1998 pension promise â€” largely for teachers. The state reacted to the Great Recession by decimating programs and denying state workersâ€™ wage increases for eight years. It was heart-wrenching.
Washington continues to use baling wire and volatile revenue sources for budgets, and we are only ever a volatile presidentâ€™s actions (perhaps tweets) away from another recession. The Washington state Supreme Court has, rightly, insisted on â€œdependable revenue sourcesâ€ for K-12.
You canâ€™t separate a budget from its shaky revenue foundation. So why should the public demand progressive tax reform if even Democrats claim progressive aims were â€œfullyâ€ achieved by regressive means? Settling for less is learned helplessness.
It happened in 2009, when I opposed cuts initially characterized as â€œcuts that will killâ€ â€” in a half-hearted case for new revenue â€” that rhetorically transformed into â€œcuts with a conscience.â€ The next year, Democratic super-majorities mustered courage and finally raised taxes upon â€¦ candy. Budget secrecy â€” culminating this year in voting on a budget no one had read â€” hardly helps make the tax reform case, either.
The public can handle honesty. While it might not serve the aims of political rhetoric, it would be honest to admit trying hard, as I know many legislators did, but falling short in key respects. The public must, again, hope for that honesty from the state Supreme Court.
Originally published at HeraldNet