Legislature, not court, allocates education spending

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State lawmakers, whether serving in the Republican-controlled Senate or the Democrat-controlled House, accept that Washington state needs increased funding for basic education.

But where there is disagreement — and building resentment — is in excessive amount of judicial muscle the state Supreme Court seems to be employing to force the Legislature to comply with its order to dramatically increase funding for basic education.

And, unfortunately, these hard feelings could result in an unnecessary and counterproductive political power struggle.

Specifically, lawmakers on budget writing committees contend the high court justices have overstepped their constitutional authority in analyzing specific funding targets and mandating lawmakers to come back with a new plan by the end of April to comply with its order to fully fund basic education.

“They are way out of their lane,” said Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.

Baumgartner sees the court’s heavy-handed approach as erosion of the balance of power between the legislative and judicial branches of governments.

“Everyone has to see how this could be abused,” Baumgartner said.

Baumgartner makes a valid observation. It must be left to the Legislature, not the court, to determine how the state’s obligation to fully fund basic education will be met. The court’s role is to determine if the mandate for full funding, as outlined in the state constitution, has been met.

Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said he too sees separation-of-power problems with the court’s approach of describing detailed budget numbers. Even if it was in the court’s purview, the justices do not have the staff or resources for adequate budget analysis.

“They got specific in ways that weren’t even accurate,” Hargrove said.

Baumgartner has proposed legislation to shrink the court from nine justices to five. He concedes the proposal is an effort to push back against the court, although he also argues — apparently with a straight face — that it would save the state money that could be redirected to education.

“This could be downright nasty,” said Phil Talmadge, who as a former Supreme Court justice and state senator grasps both positions.

He’s right. No good comes from these kinds of power plays.

The high court needs to give lawmakers some room to make a good-faith effort to meet the constitutional mandate.

Right now, after years and years of budget cuts, the state can’t do much more than the $1 billion added to basic education funding last year.

If the pace of progress slows, the court should nudge lawmakers to pick up the pace. However, the court should not tell the Legislature how the mandate has to be met. That’s the Legislature’s responsibility.

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