On the ballot, resounding state and local verdicts

Washington voters were paying attention this fall. The best evidence is the fate of Initiative 1351, the “class size” measure.

The initiative may or may not eke out a narrow win; it’s too close to call right now. But polls had suggested it would be approved by a monster margin. And why not? It promised apple pie — smaller classes for all the state’s schoolchildren — and carried no price tag.

The measure included no way to pay for those class sizes; only alert voters would figure out that it would add billions of dollars to the billions lawmakers must already come up with to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s mandate for basic education.

Most voters did pick up on that. Some were OK with the billions, but about half weren’t.

Even if I-1351 wins, the narrow margin will make it politically easier for lawmakers to override it in a year or two. Assuming it passes, the Legislature will have to override it to meet the state’s obligations under McCleary while simultaneously preserving higher education, early childhood education, and social welfare programs for children and the disabled.

Elsewhere on the ballot:

• I-594 — which requires background checks for personal firearms transactions — was a slam dunk in Washington, even with our strong gun culture. Sweeping measures like this would never reach the ballot if hard-core gun advocates didn’t pursue a scorched earth policy against any expansion of gun regulation.

Laws should be written by lawmakers, but if ferocious lobbying and loyalty tests leave the Legislature deadlocked and the public frustrated, expect the dam to burst at some point.

• Republican waves that roll across the nation often don’t lap over the Cascade Mountains. This year was one of the exceptions.

Fired-up Republicans and disgruntled independents helped the GOP win a narrow outright majority in the state Senate. Divided government can be healthy. The Republican-dominated Majority Coalition has been aggravating at times, but it has also been a crucial check on a House of Representatives controlled by Seattle-area Democrats.

A Democratic Senate might have abetted House moves toward a less accountable school system, higher business taxes and expensive political payoffs for public unions.

• Unfortunately, the eddies of red water also sank some capable Democratic candidates, including veteran lawmaker Dawn Morrell of Puyallup and Nathan Schlicher of Gig Harbor. Both lost to newcomers, Morrell to the 24-year-old Melanie Stambaugh.

Even Larry Seaquist, a distinguished Democratic lawmaker from Gig Harbor, found himself in a tight and still-undecided contest against a first-time candidate, Michelle Caldier of Port Orchard.

• Tacoma voters also deserve credit for paying attention to the city charter amendments on their ballots, all 12 of them.

They knew what they liked, including anti-discrimination language, immediate adoption of emergency ordinances and expanded City Council powers. They also killed what they didn’t like: longer term limits for the council and an attempt to kill a (largely unenforceable) requirement that city employees live inside the city.

Their passage of Charter Amendment 6 portends danger, however. It gives the City Council power to fire a TPU director who has glowing reviews from Utility Board. This will stand as an unspoken political threat to capable utility leaders who should be making apolitical, market-based decisions.

Who knows? The City Council may not abuse this new power. We’re prepared to be pleasantly surprised.