When it comes to the main challenge state lawmakers face this year, they can’t even agree to disagree.
A task force designed to come up with ideas to solve the state’s school-funding crisis failed to put out any recommendations Monday, the first day of a new legislative session in Olympia.
So divided were the eight lawmakers on the task force that they didn’t even adopt a final report to sum up their seven months of work, which involved analyzing school-funding issues that have landed the state in contempt of court.
Nor did the task force approve separate recommendations from Republicans and Democrats, as sometimes happens with similar work groups.
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“It’s almost like the outcome is ludicrous,” said state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, one of the task force members.
State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, countered that lawmakers should proceed thoughtfully, instead of throwing out school-funding ideas “willy-nilly.”
“We don’t have all the data that we need,” she said.
Solving Washington’s education-funding problem will be lawmakers’ primary focus during the new 105-day session.
In the McCleary case, lawmakers are under an order from the Washington State Supreme Court to fully fund public schools by 2018.
During opening ceremonies marking the start of the session, legislative leaders said they are confident lawmakers can find solutions this year, despite the impasse on the school-funding task force that met earlier in the day.
“We are going to be faced with some challenges this year,” said House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish.
“Collectively, if despite our differences we can work together, we can be a strong, united front,” he said.
While lawmakers have put $2.3 billion toward education reforms required under the McCleary ruling, they have yet to find a way to take on the full cost of paying teachers and other school employees, which the Supreme Court has said is a state responsibility.
Lawmakers have pledged to solve the salary problem in 2017, and the Supreme Court has warned it might impose harsh sanctions if they don’t follow through.
“This year, we must get the job done,” House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said during his opening remarks Monday.
Right now, school districts use local property tax levies to bolster what the state gives them to pay staff, a practice the court has ruled unconstitutional.
The Education Funding Task Force was created last year to study the issue and develop recommendations in nine policy areas, including how much a school-funding fix will cost.
Last week, Republicans on the task force came up with a set of guiding principles, while Democrats issued several specific policy recommendations that included cost estimates. But the task force split 4-4 along partisan lines Monday about whether to include that work in its final report.
Republicans argued against including the Democratic plan, saying they weren’t sure the Democrats landed on the right numbers.
State Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, worried that the Supreme Court might expect the Legislature to follow through with the Democratic recommendations, which included spending an additional $1.6 billion over the next two years to boost salaries for teacher and other school employees.
“I’m concerned (the court) would take these figures and hold us accountable, when I do not agree with all the figures,” Harris said.
The Democratic school-funding plan would raise the average pay for a teacher in Washington state to nearly $71,000 and cost more than $7 billion to fully implement through 2021.
The guiding principles put out by Republicans last week included no specific numbers on how much teachers should be paid.
After initially proposing to incorporate the work of both parties, Democrats later said there was no point in approving a task force report that didn’t include recommendations of any kind.
“I think that’s a failure,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, a Democrat from Covington who serves on the task force.
Lawmakers in 2017 are expected to also consider ways to reform the state’s mental health system as they work to come up with a new two-year budget.
Last month, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee introduced a budget proposal that would spend $300 million to revamp the state’s mental health system over the next two years.
A key part of Inslee’s plan involves shifting nearly all civilly committed — or noncriminal — patients from state hospitals to community treatment centers by 2020.
Lawmakers in the Senate and the House are to release their budget proposals in the coming weeks.