School funding problem returns to Olympia

Time is running out on the 2017 Legislature.

As of today, Wednesday, there are only 90-plus days remaining in the regular session, even less when you figure lawmakers won’t work many weekends.

Given their things-to-do list, they’ve pretty much assured themselves of one, and possibly two, special sessions. And it’s an even-money bet state agencies will be prepping for a shutdown of nonessential services July 1 as they have twice before under Gov. Jay Inslee.

If this seems like a case of premature panic it’s because the symptoms of special session are widely detectable.

It’s a new year and, yes, the session is only 10 days old. But lawmakers face an old problem –finding a way to fully fund public schools – and a familiar chasm between Democratic and Republican leaders on an approach to solutions. It’s also a budget-writing year, so there’s more than just schools on the agenda.

Lawmakers predict the session will be a “slog,” a “marathon” and “never ending.” They say they are “ready,” “prepared to be patient” and with a mood of “cautious apprehension” as opposed to “cautious optimism.”

And legislative honchos declare confidently, “We will get this done this year,” not the traditional, “Our goal is to get out on time.”

Inspiring, right?

For some, their attitude is punctuated by a degree of disappointment that eight lawmakers – handpicked by caucus leaders to provide some direction on the school funding conundrum – didn’t complete their assignment.

This collective of Democratic and Republican legislators met for a final time last week, adjourning without agreement on a single recommendation for ensuring the state is amply funding public schools as intended by the state Constitution and ordered by the Supreme Court.

The McCleary 8, also known as the Education Funding Task Force, delved deep into the challenge.

Democratic members came up with four pages of policy changes with a price tag of $7.3 billion. They also listed the taxes they’ve considered creating or raising to cover the cost. Republicans developed a set of guiding principles for the same issues addressed in the Democratic proposal and said it will be February before they’ll be ready to release anything more detailed.

In the end, they couldn’t figure out a way to meld both approaches into one — let alone agree to staple them together, attach a cover sheet and deliver it as a final report to their colleagues.

What this means is the Legislature is starting out as it did in 2016 and 2015: in contempt of a Supreme Court order demanding a blueprint of how-in-the-heck they will meet the Sept. 1, 2018, deadline set by justices in the McCleary case.

Plus a $100,000-a-day fine levied by justices in August 2015 continues to mount, reaching $50.7 million as of Jan. 11.

None of this should come as much of a surprise as this is pretty much how the 2016 session began.

Then, eight lawmakers spent the last months of 2015 discussing the best course for the Legislature to take on this issue. That McCleary 8, like the current incarnation, couldn’t reconcile its differences. Then, like now, the fine isn’t fueling a quicker pace — at least not visibly – and some lawmakers continuing to resist any action viewed as placating justices.

Lawmakers ended last session agreeing to find a final solution in 2017.

We’re here now. Probably be here awhile.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.comand on Twitter at @dospueblos.