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Sanctions not needed over state education funding, attorney general says

SEATTLE – Lawmakers should not be held in contempt of the state Supreme Court over their failure to present a complete plan to increase school funding, Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office said in a Friday filing.

The state’s top attorney is defending the Legislature, saying lawmakers weren’t able to produce a plan in this year’s short legislative session because of “legitimate policy disagreements that have not been resolved.”

The state Supreme Court has ordered the state Legislature to appear before it on Sept. 3 and show the court how it has followed its orders in the 2012 McCleary decision or face contempt. The McCleary decision said lawmakers are not meeting their constitutional responsibility to fully pay for basic education and they are relying too much on local tax-levy dollars to balance the education budget.

The opening brief was due Friday.

The brief by the attorney general’s office said “The Court should not treat a legitimate policy disagreement in the legislative branch as disrespectful conduct worthy of contempt.”

The court gave lawmakers until the 2017-18 school year to fix the problem. The Legislature has been making yearly progress reports on its efforts to fulfill the McCleary decision, and every year the court has said in response that lawmakers aren’t doing enough.

The most recent report to the court, filed at the end of April, acknowledged that the Legislature didn’t make a lot of progress in 2014, but said it had ideas for fixing that situation during the 2015 legislative session, which will be a longer session.

A total of $982 million will be added to state education spending over the next two years, with most of the money going to classroom supplies, student transportation and the Learning Assistance Program for struggling students.

The Legislature also made down payments toward all-day kindergarten and smaller classes in the early grades.

Ferguson’s office emphasized that the 2015 legislative session will be key in reaching a consensus on education funding and urged the Supreme Court to wait until after the session to consider sanctioning lawmakers with contempt – something, it added, that has never happened before.

The attorney general also said sanctioning lawmakers now would be “impractical, unproductive, or destructive” of the goals set by the McCleary decision.