Politics & Government

School bonds will continue to require 60 percent approval after GOP blocks reform

Although Democrats have majorities in both chambers of the Washington state Legislature, Republicans still have power.

They wielded it Tuesday.

GOP senators blocked putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot this year that would have let voters decide whether to scrap the 60 percent “supermajority” required to approve school districts bonds.

To place the measure on the Nov. 5 general election ballot, at least a two-thirds majority is needed in each chamber. That means at least 33 senators would have to approve it.

Democrats hold a 29-20 majority in the Senate, but their effective control is 28-21 because one Democrat — Tim Sheldon — caucuses and usually votes with the Republicans.

The Democrats did not get the minimum of five additional votes they needed to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot.

The final vote was 28-21 in favor of the resolution. A House version of the resolution did not get out of committee.

Voters would have been asked to replace the 60 percent threshold with a 50-percent plus one proposal under a resolution and bill sponsored by Sen. Lisa Wellman, the Mercer Island Democrat who chairs the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.

“We have schools that are so overcrowded that I actually wonder how the fire marshal allows that school to open its doors, knowing that children couldn’t possibly exit the building safely if there were a fire,” Wellman said before the vote.

“We really want to allow democracy to rule and there be a simple majority for a school bond to go forward,” she added.

Wellman’s measure also would have removed an additional restriction on voter approval of school district bonds. In addition to the 60 percent threshold, the number of voters must be at least 40 percent of the total in the previous election.

She said one of the school districts she represents, Renton, had a school bond measure fail last month even though more than 60 percent of voters approved it. The reason: The district couldn’t meet the 40 percent turnout threshold because the previous election — the 2018 mid-term election — attracted a large number of voters.

Under Wellman’s resolution, voters in November would have decided whether to scrap the 40 percent requirement, too.

Republican senators said the 60 percent voter approval threshold is designed to give taxpayers extra protections when school districts want to sell bonds for construction projects.

Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Pyallup, said the Legislature needs to respect taxpayers and the state’s Constitution.

“Indeed, it is appropriate to have a higher threshold on certain votes. This vote we are taking here has a higher threshold. We recognize that when we pass bonds for our capital budget. It allows, actually, the voice of the minority to be heard in a way that would not otherwise be heard with a simple majority.”

Earlier, Zeiger tried to amend the bill twice, and both efforts failed.

His first amendment would have lowered the threshold from 60 percent to 55 percent and prohibited the state prevailing wage from applying to school construction projects.

Sen. Karen Keiser, the Kent Democrat who was presiding over the Senate in the absence of Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, ruled the amendment as “impermissible” because it “seeks to expand the scope of the underlying bill.”

Zeiger’s second amendment also would have lowered the threshold from 60 per cent to 55 percent if a school bond issue was approved at a general election. He said 55 percent was a compromise.

“Having these at the general election ensures we have as many people participating in these elections as possible who are making these commitments to long-term bonding,” he said.

At the request of Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, the Senate tabled the amendment. Tabling is a way to avoid a yes or no on the merits of the amendment. Liias said Zeiger’s amendment appeared “dilatory” — intended to cause delay, gain time, or defer a decision — and he called for a vote on the resolution.

A number of school bonds have failed in the Tacoma area in recent years. This year, voters in the the Peninsula, Yelm and Bethel school districts won approval for their bond levies.

Reached for comment after the Senate vote, Tom Seigel, Bethel’s superintendent, expressed disappointment.

“Until this thing is fixed, Washington will never have a first-rate, public education system. It just won’t,” Seigel said.

Timothy Yeomans, superintendent of the Puyallup School District, said, “There are many communities in our state where 60 percent is simply unreasonable.”

“At some point in the future, I would hope reason would prevail, and the state would be able to entertain the prospect of capital improvements in an environment where the deck is not completely stacked against the public entities trying to serve children,” Yeomans said.

The district passed a school bond measure in 2015, but it took 11 years, five election campaigns and nearly $600,000 in election expenses, he said.

North Thurston Public Schools had a $125 million bond issue in 2004 that failed because it received 56 percent voter approval. The district came back to voters two years later with a $112 million package and that passed with 65 percent approval. In 2014, 68 percent of voters approved a $175 million bond issue.

The district plans to ask voters next year to approve a school bond measure, but the amount has not been determined yet, said Monty Sabin, assistant superintendent of North Thurston Public Schools.

“We just feel like bond measures should be treated like other issues in our democracy. They should pass or fail with simple majorities. We feel strongly when you have the 60 percent threshold, it gives a disproportionate amount of power just to a small group of voters that can thwart the will of the majority of the voters,” he said.

The state’s public schools chief requested the resolution to put the constitutional amendment on the ballot. At a hearing last month, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal urged legislators to “get more courageous” by putting the measure on the Nov. 5 ballot.

After Tuesday’s vote, Reykdal, a former Democratic House member, tweeted: “School construction is a basic education necessity and it is unconscionable that it requires a 60% vote. This should not have been a partisan vote.”

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