Politics & Government

Legislature might send Initiative 1351 back to voters

Lawmakers can’t figure out a way to pay for the class size initiative voters approved last fall. So they may try to put it back on the ballot.

Budget writers in both chambers of the Legislature are considering sending Initiative 1351 back to voters as one way to help balance the state budget. That could mean asking voters to approve a new version of the initiative that includes a way to pay for it, or asking voters to repeal the measure entirely.

Initiative 1351, which calls for reducing class sizes in kindergarten through 12th grade, is projected to cost the state

$2 billion in the next two years.

It’s money the state doesn’t have as lawmakers also look at having to add at least $1.2 billion in funding for K-12 schools to comply with a state Supreme Court order to increase education spending.

Some of that money would go toward lowering class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, one of the state’s obligations under the court order known as McCleary. Some lawmakers have suggested that funding McCleary would fulfill at least part of voters’ intent in passing I-1351.

But lawmakers don’t have the option of partial compliance — not unless they come up with enough votes to suspend or amend the initiative, which would require the approval of two-thirds of legislators in each chamber.

Referring I-1351 back to the voters is one way lawmakers could get around the problem.

Putting an amended version of the initiative back on the ballot would require the approval of only a constitutional majority of the Legislature, or 50 percent of members plus one, according to a 1995 opinion issued by the state Attorney General’s Office.

The process is clearly laid out in Article II of the state constitution, said Hugh Spitzer, a lawyer who teaches constitutional law at the University of Washington. Through a referendum bill, lawmakers could propose changes to the initiative and ask voters to approve them, or they could ask voters to just get rid of the law, he said.

“It’s absolutely within their right,” Spitzer said. “It’s quite straightforward.”

Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said referring a “corrected version” of I-1351 back to voters is one tool he and other lawmakers are considering as they craft a new two-year budget.

“I have yet to find a legislator or the governor who says they can find a way to fund it,” said Hill, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “So we will find a way to correct it.”

“It’s a lot easier to find a simple majority than two-thirds,” said Hill, the Senate’s lead budget writer.

House budget writer Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said his preference would be for the Legislature to amend or suspend I-1351 without a public vote, but he agreed it could be difficult to summon the two-thirds majority required in the Legislature to do so.

As a backup plan, Hunter said he also is researching how lawmakers might send I-1351 back to voters.

If the Legislature goes that route, Hunter said he would want to ask voters to approve one of two options: Either repeal I-1351 or enact an amended version of the initiative that includes a funding source.

That way, there wouldn’t be the potential for voters to reject the Legislature’s plan and stick with the original version of the law, triggering a new budget crisis in 2016, he said.

“That would be the option I would really not like to have happen,” Hunter said.

Should lawmakers kick I-1351 back to voters as part of their new two-year budget plan, Hunter said the state would need to delay its funding of the initiative until after the November election, which he said can be accomplished in how the Legislature crafts its budget.

It doesn’t appear as if the Legislature has tried something like this before.

The Secretary of State’s elections division “has no record of this occurring” in state history, agency spokesman David Ammons said.

“It’s uncharted territory,” Ammons said.

What is clear is that in that in the past, voters have been reluctant to approve initiatives that have appeared on the ballot with taxes attached to pay for them.

In 2004, nearly 60 percent of voters rejected Initiative 884, which would have have raised the state sales tax by 1 percent to pay for investments in preschools, K-12 education, and public colleges and universities.

Five years ago, about 64 percent of voters similarly shot down Initiative 1098, an income tax proposal that would have devoted much of its revenues to education.

Hunter warned that lawmakers should tread carefully if they seek to modify I-1351, whether it is done in the Legislature or with the approval of voters.

The state Supreme Court has made it clear that the Legislature can’t eliminate parts of the state’s definition of basic education for merely financial reasons, Hunter said. Lawmakers need to consider whether that limits their ability to tweak I-1351, he said.

“You’d have to replace it with some investment that has better educational outcomes,” Hunter said.

I-1351 changes the state’s basic education funding formulas to allow for smaller class sizes. As written, the initiative would fund increased staff-to-student ratios to allow for average class sizes of 17 students in kindergarten through third grade and 25 students in higher grades by 2018. Higher-poverty schools would get more money for smaller class sizes under the initiative.

Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, said the state Supreme Court would look harshly on lawmakers if they try to change I-1351. The statewide teachers union was one of the top backers of the initiative campaign last year.

“There’s no educational reason for increasing kids’ class sizes, and that’s what the Legislature would be doing if it doesn’t fund this law,” Wood said. “Instead of trying to find ways to thwart the will of the voters, the Legislature should focus on providing our kids with the smaller class sizes that they deserve, and the law requires.”

Yet both Hunter and Hill said they can readily think of better — and cheaper — ways to improve public education than the plan laid out in I-1351.

While Hill wouldn’t say exactly how he’d like to change the law, he said lowering K-3 class sizes and expanding all-day kindergarten makes sense, as does investing more money in preschool programs and higher education.

“I would argue, yes, there is a better way to spend that money,” Hill said.