When the Washington State Supreme Court handed down its historic McCleary decision, ruling that the state had failed to meet its constitutional “paramount duty” to provide for the ample funding of our public schools, Democrats cheered at the opportunity. The court ordered the state to add billions more to K-12 spending. Finally we would reverse decades of foolish disinvestment. Hooray!
Except, it’s beginning to look like Republicans and their drown-government-in-a-bathtub agenda are going to end up the big winners.
The indisputable mathematical truth is that we simply cannot meet McCleary and maintain existing government services at constant levels, without raising new revenue. It can’t be done! And anybody who tells you otherwise is either a liar or an idiot. Washington state has a structural revenue deficit. There is absolutely no way we can magically fund McCleary through economic growth alone. The math doesn’t work. Which means there is no way the state doesn’t eventually find itself in contempt of court.
It is going to happen. It is inevitable. Barring a farfetched pro-tax Democratic sweep in this November’s legislative elections, the state will not meet the McCleary mandate.
So how will the court react? Legislators enjoy immunity, so the court can’t throw them in jail on contempt charges, as much as they might deserve it. And the court lacks the authority to levy taxes itself. So the only remedy really available to the justices would be to order drastic across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending in order to repurpose those funds to our public schools.
Which is exactly what the Republicans want!
The Republicans correctly view McCleary as an unparalleled opportunity to defund the rest of state government in the disingenuous name of educating our children. But as the Washington State Budget & Policy Center correctly observes, such a policy would force “devastating cuts to health care, public safety, child care, and other important investments kids need in order to succeed in the classroom.” It would be a total fucking disaster.
But the alternative—doing nothing—would be a disaster too. For if the Supreme Court is proven toothless in the face of legislative insubordination, then the system of checks and balances inherent within our constitution would be forever broken.
Washington State is headed toward a constitutional crisis. There is no avoiding it. And Democrats better start preparing themselves to handle this McCleary crisis a helluva lot better than they handled the McCleary opportunity.