Politics & Government

Schools chief challenges lawmakers to get ‘courageous’ and change bond supermajority

The state’s public schools chief urged legislators Wednesday to “get more courageous” by putting a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would enable voters to more easily approve school district bonds by doing away with the current 60 percent “supermajority” requirement.

Two options, a simple 50-percent plus one vote majority and a 55 percent approval, are being discussed in the Legislature.

“Thirty-eight House members and 20 senators would not be sworn into office if the 60 percent applied to your elections that you apply to supporting kids in communities,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal told members of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Committee.

Reykdal said the sole legitimate concern he’s heard about scrapping the 60 percent threshold is what happens to the state budget if it’s easier for districts to get bond levies passed. School districts are in charge of getting local funds for construction projects. The state provides partial funding. A bill pending in another Senate committee would enable the state to stretch dollars over more districts and would not trigger higher costs, Reykdal said.

Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-Wenatchee, said he hears concerns from constituents about higher property tax bills. Referring to school buildings as “long-lived assets,” Hawkins suggested the 60 percent threshold might be needed because voters are asked to approve school bond issues that hike taxes longer than levies for maintenance and operations.

Reykdal said he he didn’t buy the argument, saying school bond issues boost learning over decades.

As to the property tax concerns, Reykdal said he shared Hawkins’ concern and urged the Legislature to pass the proposed capital gains tax.

“Shift the burden from 2 million property taxpayers to 50,000 folks who are selling stocks and bonds every year. It’s not their assets in agriculture or lands or primary residences or retirement incomes or any of that. It is passive transactions that virtually all other states are asking their folks to pay,” he said.

Reykdal said the capital gains tax, which state officials have estimated would generate about $975 million for the upcoming two-year operating budget, could be used to reduce the state property tax and “shift the tax burden to those who can most afford it.”

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said a capital gains tax, which Gov. Jay Inslee included in his proposed 2019-21 budget, is an income tax. The lack of one is a key reason for the state’s economic growth, Padden added.

“I certainly respect you, but we have a difference of opinion and a difference of outlook,” Padden told Reykdal, adding that other options should be considered, such as consolidating some of the state’s school districts to lower administrative costs.

Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, told Reykdal that “not every voter has skin in the game from the paying side” on property tax bills. A building owner with 100 people working in it gets “stuck with the tax,” Wagoner said.

“In your ideal world, would every bond pass?” he asked.

“In my ideal world, the voters would get to control their democracy, their community and their support for their kids with a simple majority,” Reykdal replied.

Reykdal and GOP senators gently sparred as the committee reviewed two bills to lower the 60 percent threshold to a simple majority (50 percent plus one) or to 55 percent, which Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, offered as a compromise.

To do so, the House and Senate would have to pass resolutions to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. That would require two-thirds approval in the House and Senate — at least 66 House members and at least 33 senators. The Democrats would need Republican help. Democrats control the House 57-41 and the Senate 28-21.

No GOP legislators have co-sponsored bills lowering the 60 percent threshold or the resolutions that would place them on the ballot.

Sen. Lisa Wellman, the Mercer Island Democrat who is the committee’s chairwoman, said she’s responding to school districts struggling to remove asbestos, repair faulty ceilings and dealing with the need to add classrooms to manage growing enrollments. She said it’s a health issue for students as well as a fiscal one for school officials.

“I’m really pushing; we’d love to have a simple majority. I don’t know if we can get that; I think we can get 55 percent. Most school bonds pass and then there are some places where it’s year after year after year that they don’t,” she said in an interview.

A number of school bonds have failed in the Tacoma area over the past year. Peninsula School District received 58.9 per cent support for its latest bond proposal, with Yelm at 59.7 percent and Bethel at 59.2 percent.

Tom Seigel, Bethel’s superintendent, told the committee that the 60 percent threshold is a statewide problem as 35 districts have suffered chronic bond failures.

“That means about 15 percent of the students — 175,000 — are living and working in schools that are unhealthy, unsafe, insecure and/or overcrowded,” Seigel said.

If those 35 districts passed their bond levies, the cost to the state school construction program would be about $570 million spread over several years, Seigel said.

Seigel referred to Bethel’s failure to pass a school bond issue with 59.2 percent voter support as “crazy.”

“This is something we have to fix,” he told the senators.