On the eve of government shutdown, and with a historic duty to reform education financing, the Legislature yet again shuts out the public.
BY one important measure, the 2017 Legislature is already a failure.
For the second time in three years, budget negotiations have gone into triple overtime, to the brink of a government shutdown. Without a budget approved by both houses and signed by the governor, state government could shut down nonessential functions, starting Friday.
And the negotiations have made a mockery of public accountability — with negotiators withholding details of a historic education-funding plan and $43 billion-plus budget. With the deadline looming, and no draft made publicly available, it is impossible for the public to give meaningful input.
Leaders in the Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate earnestly pledge to meet Thursday’s drop-dead deadline for a deal that averts widespread furloughs, park closures and delay of benefit checks. Negotiators hint that a deal is imminent.
But that misses the point.
These secret negotiations leave hundreds of school districts in limbo, wondering if the closed-door deal making on the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling will be a boon or bust for their budgets.
It leaves businesses wondering how the potential new taxes to meet the McCleary ruling impact them. It leaves advocacy groups — from foster kids to well-drillers to hospitals — who have been pacing the Capitol hallways, wondering if their months of work will fall off the table behind closed doors. It leaves journalists scant opportunity to shine their spotlights on crass political deals in the budget. And there will be some.
Lawmakers, this is no way to run a state. You need to find a radically different approach to negotiating. The governor, too, was once again too hands-off until too late in the negotiations.
There have been ideas, big and small, to tweak the process. But ultimately, finishing on time relies on lawmakers’ willingness to compromise and to put civic duty above partisanship. They should pay a price for shutting the public out.
Both parties bear responsibility for the delay. Senate Republicans stubbornly refused to negotiate key elements of the budget until the House Democrats voted on the big new taxes underpinning their education-reform plan. If rumors in Olympia are true, the secret budget plan includes none of Democrats’ progressive tax changes. The GOP had their own stunts, refusing for months to approve union contracts, although it is now clear Republicans could not pass a final budget without approving the raises.
Whether the 2017 Legislature is a failure on the biggest measure — producing thoughtful, comprehensive education-funding reform — is still an open question. We’ll know when we are able to analyze the final, still-secret deal, after it is embedded in law.
The state Supreme Court in 2012 demanded lawmakers actually pay for the education system it authorized, instead of shunting the bill to local school levies that vary widely across the state. School levies must be small and cover only nonessential services.
The new plan must fully cover basic education, including teachers’ salaries. It must provide money to turn underperforming schools into high achievers, to raise graduation rates that lag behind peer states and to lift the potential of all students with innovation and support.
These are complex duties for a part-time citizen Legislature. But lawmakers have had years to work this out. It is an embarrassment that just days until a possible government shutdown, the public has no real idea what is happening behind closed doors.