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Thursday, February 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: A day in jail would motivate legislators to fund education

OLYMPIA – The Legislature sends its latest report to the state Supreme Court this week on how it’s stepping up to the plate on educating Washington’s children, an exercise that resembles a high school student cramming together an end-of-term project after frittering away much of the semester.

The question is, will the court give legislators a passing grade, an incomplete or detention? We vote for Door No. 3, but more on that later.

The back-and-forth between the Legislature and the court over public schools is a protracted saga that makes “The Lord of the Rings” seem like a short story. There have been other rulings in the past that the Legislature was falling short on its constitutional mandate to provide for the education of the state’s children, but in 2012 the court signaled it had enough of the practice of passing laws that talk a good game on education policy, then refuse to put money and mouth in the same location. The court gave legislators a deadline to pony up, probably realizing that without a deadline lawmakers might be content to while away their time passing resolutions honoring various flower- or fruit-themed festivals, recognizing athletic teams that exhibit special prowess or calling for awareness of certain terminal illnesses.

It was not a single deadline, as in “Get this done by 2018.” It was more, “Figure out the way to get this all done by 2018, and report back to us on the plan and the progress.”

Last year, the report was a problem because no progress was made in the 2014 session. Lawmakers used their best “pad the term paper” tactics by giving the court a primer on how the Legislature works, or doesn’t work, when the chambers are run by different political parties and they only have 60 days to come up with something. This seemed to assume the justices slept through junior high civics, skipped all poli-sci classes on their way to law school and ignored news accounts of the session. But without it, the paper could have been reduced to “we got nuttin.”

Unimpressed, the court found the state, which is to say the Legislature, in contempt.

This statement makes some chuckle and others laugh uproariously, because some lawmakers hold the court in such low regard that contempt would be an improvement. Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, once proposed a bill to trim the court from its current nine members down to five by having the justices draw straws, with any savings being applied to basic education. While that drew only two co-sponsors and never got a hearing, his later plan to reduce it to seven members through attrition got more support, including from Law and Justice Chairman Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, who held a hearing in his committee.

But the court is talking about legal contempt, which is to say “You didn’t do something we told you to do, and there are consequences.”

To their credit, lawmakers did make progress on improving education in the 2015 session, adding $1.3 billion to things the court considers basic education, including raises from the state for school personnel, smaller class sizes in kindergarten through third grade and more money for materials and supplies. But they couldn’t figure out how to revise the property tax levy system to shift the burden for some education expenses from local districts back to the state, which is something the court wants them to do.

The report the special joint committee prepared for the court last week admits that. But it uses the sneaky sophomore trick of trying to overwhelm the justices, devoting more than 20 pages in the middle of this 37-page term paper with details of bills that each chamber discussed or proposed – but didn’t actually pass.

The justices may not be impressed enough to lift the contempt citation. That raises the question of what will they do when they tire of extending deadlines and saying “Get back to us next year.”

How about they do what other courts do when someone’s in contempt? Send legislators to jail.

Not all at once, not for the duration and not all in the same place. But it wouldn’t hurt each legislator to spend 24 hours in his or her county’s hoosegow, to see how it works or doesn’t work for the folks who get caught violating the laws being passed. If there are some really nasty folks in gen pop, it would be OK to keep legislators away from them, maybe relegated to the “drunk and doped tank.” They could surrender on a day of their choice, calling ahead for a “reservation” to make sure the county lockup isn’t way over capacity.

A day in an orange jumpsuit or other jail-issue garb, three jail meals, a chat with the more permanent residents might be educational. It could also be motivational when it comes to solving that levy problem next year.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at www.spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.

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