Washington Supreme Court Imposes Monetary Fines on Recalcitrant Legislature

in NEWS FROM THE ACCESS NETWORK, Washington

Last fall, the Washington Supreme Court, responding to a series of legislative failures to comply with its remedial orders to properly fund public education, held the State of Washington in “contempt of court,”  and further decreed that if the Legislature did not purge the contempt by the end of the 2015 legislative session, the court would impose sanctions. In a decision issued earlier this month, the Court did impose sanctions. Finding that although some progress had been made, the State still had not adopted an acceptable “plan for achieving compliance by its own deadline of 2018,” the Court imposed a “remedial assessment” of $100,000 per day on the State until such time as the State develops an acceptable compliance plan.

Among the areas of progress that the Court cited were full funding for transportation, and for voluntary kindergartens, as well as headway on class size reduction. The Court emphasized, however, that there was still a long way to go to reach the target of class sizes of 17 for all K-3 classes by 2018. The budget for the 2015-2017 biennium appropriates $350 million for class size reduction, but the Court stated that achieving the class size reduction goals by 2018 would require $1.15 billion, and the state has presented no plan on how it will ensure that this money will be available. The Court also noted that the State has not made adequate provision for the capital costs associated with kindergarten expansion and class size reduction.  The other major area of concern emphasized by the Court was personnel costs. The justices chided the legislature for failing to develop any plan for attracting and retaining high-quality educators.

The fines imposed by the Court are to be held in a segregated account “for the benefit of basic education.” The Court stated that although it has no authority to convene a special session of the legislature, it “encourages the governor to aid in resolving this matter by calling a special session.” Governor Jay Inslee said he does not believe a special legislative session is necessary yet, but he urged key legislators to start meeting regularly to work on a detailed plan, as ordered by the state Supreme Court. The legislature does not, however, appear to feel pressured to comply immediately. It has set aside $360 million in unappropriated funds in the current budget, and House budget chairman Ross Hunter said, referring to the fines, “We’re good for it.”

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