Voters will decide in November whether it should be easier to raise taxes for local schools.
The state Senate voted 33-16 Thursday to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would lower the threshold for approving school levies to a simple majority, instead of the 60 percent supermajority now required.
Three Republicans – Sens. Cheryl Pflug of Hobart in South King County, Jim Clements of Selah and Dale Brandland of Bellingham – joined majority Democrats to provide the two-thirds vote needed to pass the measure on the second try this session. A Feb. 28 effort failed by one vote.
The House already had approved House Joint Resolution 4204, so the measure goes directly to the November ballot.
If voters approve the change to the state Constitution, then school operating, transportation and excess capital levies could be passed with a 50 percent, plus one, “yes” vote. Approval to borrow money for school construction projects still would require 60 percent approval.
Rep. Shay Schual-Berke, a Normandy Park Democrat who sponsored the amendment, predicted a spirited campaign this fall.
“There will be an intensive war waged,” she said.
Some lawmakers in both chambers, even though they voted to put the measure on the ballot, predicted it will be defeated. But at least an issue that has been brought up in the Legislature for more than 20 years finally will be put to rest for a while, they said.
Majority Democrats turned back several amendments that would have required school levy votes to be held only in November and to require a minimum turnout of at least 15 percent of registered voters in the respective school district boundaries.
“Let the people decide,” said Sen. Tracy Eide, D-Federal Way, who has pushed for the constitutional amendment since 1993. “This is the day. Our time has come.”
The education establishment – superintendents, school board members, parent-teacher associations and employee unions – have long campaigned to make it easier to pass school property tax levies. They complain that many other measures, such as the public financing plan for the Seattle Seahawks stadium, were approved with a simple majority.
HJR 4204 would allow school boards to hold special elections in February, March, April and May, as they do now. But it would remove an existing requirement that says the number of “yes” votes must be equal to or more than 24 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the preceding general election.
Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, who voted against putting the amendment on the ballot, said rapidly rising home prices over the past several years probably will put voters in a foul mood in November.
“They’re going to resoundingly turn this down,” he said. “They’ll see the Legislature is getting further away from funding schools and relying on them more and more.”
The state pays for most school funding. Local property tax levies generally cover about 20 percent of school districts’ budgets.
Don Whiting, legislative director for the Washington State Grange, said the grange has a long-standing opposition to removing the 60 percent threshold, but its executive board has yet to meet to discuss whether the Grange will have any role in the opposition ballot campaign.
The Washington Education Association, the union that represents more than 80,000 public school and community college employees, is likely to be actively involved in trying to pass the constitutional amendment, WEA President Charles Hasse said.
Joseph Turner: 253-597-8436