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Washington Lawmakers Express Frustration With State Supreme Court

NW News Network

Washington’s school funding saga may soon come to an end, but tensions between two of the branches of state government are still evident. Four legislators who participated in a legislative forum in Spokane on Thursday expressed varying levels of surprise and frustration over the court’s actions in two major cases.

Last year, a group of eight legislators did some metaphorical heavy lifting when they negotiated a school funding plan that shifts more of the burden from local tax levies to the state. The plan includes an increase in the state property tax next year.

“I was one of the eight negotiators and we talked in that negotiation as this plan was coming together,” Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane) said at a Greater Spokane Incorporated legislative forum on Thursday. “And we thought the court may find this plan coming up just a little bit short and particularly with special education.”

So he was surprised when the court ruled the legislature’s plan was adequate, but not its timetable for implementing it.

"We thought the schedule was going to be fine because we had fully enacted a funding plan. All of the money required to meet the court’s requirements was going to go into action. And we thought the fact we needed a little extra runway to get that done would not be a concern,” Billig said.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler said it was quite an accomplishment for a divided legislature to shift school funding, in response to the court order.

“We got Michael Baumgartner and Andy Billig to vote for the same package. That’s pretty damn encouraging," Schoesler said. "And for the court to say ‘you didn’t do it fast enough’ is a real level of arrogance. I think the court is so completely out of control in every aspect of our budget and governing, it’s incredible.”

Schoesler and other Republicans, including Baumgartner, have complained about what they view as the court’s activism. They cite its 2016 decision in what is known as the Hirst case. That essentially requires counties to do their own work, rather than relying on the state, to establish whether there’s adequate water for new developments.

“It was a baffling decision by the Supreme Court, who essentially said, the water manager for the state of Washington, statutorily, that’s the Department of Ecology, that’s their job,” Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland) said. “And the Supreme Court said, no it’s not. It’s the counties’ job. That has never been the case. Counties are not equipped to do it. They don’t know how to do it. They don’t want to do it. They don’t have the resources to do it.”

Republicans say that ruling has the potential to stymie growth, especially in rural areas where water supplies are limited. They’ve insisted the legislature change the laws to protect landowners who want to build and dig wells and they won’t vote to approve a new state capital budget until that happens. This week, House Democrats held a three-hour hearing on a proposal to solve the stalemate. Springer says he’s cautiously optimistic that will lead to an agreement.

Critics of the court say it’s an issue that never would have been a problem had the court not issued its ruling. And it has legislators like Rep. Mike Volz (R-Spokane) wondering about the separation of powers in government.

“Do we have to get our budgets approved now by the Supreme Court after the governor signs them?" Volz asked. "I think at some point, collectively, we need to push back against the Supreme Court and their rulings because it is so driving the agendas in Olympia.”

Volt and others argue that’s not the way it should be.