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The McCleary Showdown

December 11, 2014

The state Supreme Court has ordered the Legislature to find billions in new funding for education. Can lawmakers find the money without raising taxes?

A view of the Hall of Justice (Washington State Supreme Court Building) from the pillars of the Legislative Building.

When Washington state lawmakers come to the Capitol Building for the 2015 session, they’ll be under the watchful eye of the Supreme Court, which sits just across the plaza in the Temple of Justice. The challenge for the Legislature is to agree on a budget that will sufficiently fund basic education, as ordered by the Supreme Court, and find billions of dollars more for state services. 

The Court says, no more delays. At the end of April, have a budget and plan to comply with McCleary, or else.

Or else, what?  That’s the multibillion-dollar question that could precipitate a constitutional crisis.

McCleary v. Washington Backgrounder

Washington’s constitution is unique in language that makes the funding of basic education the State’s primary responsibility:

Washington State Constitution, Article IX:
SECTION 1 PREAMBLE. It is the paramount duty of the State to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.

From left: Kelsey, Stephanie and Carter McCleary. Photo courtesy: Legislative Services Photography

In 2007, Matthew and Stephanie McCleary (and others) brought suit against the State, claiming that the State was not meeting its requirement to sufficiently fund basic education of their children ages 13 and 7 at the time. The McClearys cited deficiencies in basic supplies, textbooks, operations and large class sizes. The Supreme Court decided the case in 2012, ruling for the plaintiffs; Washington was not adequately funding basic K-12 education according to the Legislature’s own education reform standards as established in ESHB 2261. The Legislature added money to the K-12 budget in 2013, but the Court was dissatisfied when lawmakers failed to deliver an adequate follow-up plan at the end of the 2014 legislative session, as requested. In September 2014, the justices held the Legislature in contempt and have warned that they could face sanctions if the 2015 session ends in April without implementing McCleary. The Court has given the Legislature until 2018 to fully implement the order under McCleary.

Today, McCleary daughter Kelsey is halfway through college and son Carter attends high school.

Today, Washington spends about $15 billion dollars on basic education in every two-year  budget.  Complying with McCleary will require an additional $1-2 billion in the next two years and $2.3 billion more for 2017-19.  These are figures based on the state’s own education standards as developed by recent education reform legislation (ESHB 2261).

So how will a divided Legislature--which begins the 2015 session with an estimated $1 billion shortfall--come up with that kind of money?

Senator Andy Hill (R-45th District) believes that education can be funded without new taxes.

Senator Andy Hill (R-45th District), the budget writer for the Republican-controlled Senate says a lot of money will have to be found, but it “doesn’t necessarily have to be new revenue.” He suggests the solution can be found without new taxes.

“Raising taxes is the easy, lazy way out.” He claims there is more money coming into state coffers. “The economy is ramping up and we do have additional money."

Rep. Ross Hunter (D-48th District) says that new revenue is needed, in order to comply with the McCleary decision.

Rep. Ross Hunter (D-48th District), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, believes the state budget is stretched as far as it go, even after ignoring or deferring important services and projects. 

“I think we’re out of cuts to do. We’ve made billions of dollars of cuts to get through this recession, and now were looking at the problem. I think we’re probably going to have to find new revenue.”  Hunter adds “we’ll do whole budget first and make sure we can’t do it with existing resources long before we take up good new revenue.”

New revenue means taxes. What kind of new taxes?

Hunter’s ideas will likely be in a budget Gov. Jay Inslee will unveil in mid-December. They may  include lifting the growth lid on state property taxes, or a new capital gains tax on higher-income households.  

Back to or else. What happens on April 27 if the Supreme Court is again dissatisfied by the Legislature comes up with?

Andy Hill says, “Nobody knows, the court could issue sanctions, it’s not clear what those sanctions are. This is uncharted constitutional territory.”

Legal scholars believe the court could invalidate a budget bill—throwing the Legislature back in to session. Or start invalidating the state's 650 tax exemptions until McCleary is funded.

“That would make this place very interesting,” says Hunter. “It would be the full employment act for lobbyists.”

Hill shrugs. “I’m not going to worry a lot about it because I think we’ll get the job done.”

Ross Hunter says “it will be interesting to watch us this year as we work through what we really care about, and what do we want this budget to look like when we’re done.”



Made possible in part by

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming.  His credits include PIE, Something in the Water  (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase.  Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.

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