OLYMPIA – With a significant part of the state in flames and entire towns being evacuated, this is no time to throw the word “crisis” around lightly.
So it must be noted first and foremost that when the group that runs the state Senate invoked the “C” word Friday, they mean a crisis of a more theoretical nature.
The Majority Coalition Caucus foresees a constitutional crisis, contending the state Supreme Court usurped the Legislature’s role in deciding how the state should spend some of our money.
Late last week they asked leaders of the other legislative gaggles – House Democrats, House Republicans and Senate Democrats – to join them in a yet-to-be determined counterattack to the perceived invasion of the court into their territory over public school funding.
If you wonder why the other groups have party affiliations and the crisis invokers do not, it’s because the 25 Republicans, who would be a majority all by themselves, hang out with one disaffected Democrat, Tim Sheldon of Potlatch. They laid claim to the coalition title back when they needed his vote to rise out of the minority, and stuck with it.
In a detailed missive, 18 Senate Republicans plus Sheldon laid out a case that by telling the Legislature it was falling down on its constitutional duty to adequately pay for public schools – then giving lawmakers short shrift when they ponied up a record amount of new money for education by demanding an actual plan for completing the task – the court was treating them like the Rodney Dangerfield of co-equal government branches. To make matters worse, the court levied a fine of $100,000 a day until the Legislature came up with a plan to solve a particularly vexing problem with the way the state pushes some of the cost of paying teachers off on many school districts. (Trust me when I say you’d enjoy a root canal more than drilling down into this topic.)
The money was ordered to be put into a special account to benefit basic education. Lacking the authority to call them back into a special session, the court tried to entice them with an offer to waive the fine if they came back and crafted a plan.
“It’s our opinion they’ve overstepped their bounds, appropriating money and telling us how to spend it,” said signatory Sen. Mike Padden, a Spokane Valley Republican who has switched hats from legislator to judge to legislator over the last 35 years.
The court’s order presents some pretty interesting legal issues, such as where does that fine come from and where does it go. Not only would the Legislature have to vote to appropriate money to pay the fine, it would have to authorize the special account to put it in. Lawmakers could do nothing and give the court a raised middle digit.
A spokesman for the state Treasurer’s Office said they’ll keep a running tab of how much the fine would be, should the Legislature decide to pay it, but they have no authority to take 1,000 Benjamins out of the state safe and stick them in a special locked drawer each day. If the Legislature were to set up the account and put the money in, it would also be up to lawmakers to decide how to spend it on “basic education,” which is a pretty broad topic.
“I think they’ve got themselves in a box,” Padden said.
Legislators may be in another box on the same shelf. There’s no clear way for the Legislature to challenge the order and fine. They can ask for a rehearing and reconsideration, but the justices were pretty clear they’d had it with the Legislature’s inability to come up with a plan to finish a task first laid out in 2012. The lawmakers’ letter lists ways they think the court order violates the U.S. Constitution as well as the Washington Constitution, but good luck getting the federal courts involved in a state fight of this nature.
The letter-writers are not alone in being irked about the latest court order, but they did not get an immediate buy-in from the other caucuses. House Republican leadership was tied up Friday and hadn’t read the letter. But several of their members have called for the justices’ impeachment, including Rep. Matt Manweller, a political science professor at Central Washington University who described the letter as a pushback against a ridiculous court order on his Facebook page.
Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson suggested her colleagues across the aisle spend their energy on education issues not legal battles. The House Democrats’ chief budget writer, Rep. Ross Hunter, described the order as politically and practically inconvenient, but not a constitutional crisis.
It’s not unusual for one branch of government to tell another what to do, Hunter said: the Legislature puts strings on appropriations to force the executive branch’s hand. Compared to other states where courts have shut down parts of government in disputes over budget issues, this is pretty measured so far, he said.
Gov. Jay Inslee – who has to herd the cats into some sort of agreement about developing a plan if there is to be a special session – said letter-writers seemed more focused on “a legally dubious theory that attacks the court rather than on finding a productive solution to our education challenge.”
If legislators decide to mount a challenge, the justices are unlikely to play Emily Litella and issue the judicial equivalent of “Never Mind”. But no one can predict what the court will do if the Legislature won’t do what it ordered last week.
That’s not really a crisis. But it is a conundrum.