March 4, 2002
After House vote, Supermajority Rule remains intact
by Jeanette Knutson
A veritable Who's Who in Public Education showed up in Olympia to testify in favor of a Constitutional amendment to ease the passage of school levies. But their efforts were to no avail. The measure failed by a single vote two weeks ago in the state House of Representatives.
Current school levies require at least a three-fifths (60 percent) supermajority vote to pass, plus a minimum "yes" vote based on a percentage of persons voting in a previous election. Current capital projects bonds require a supermajority plus a minimum turnout (the number of voters voting on the issue must equal 40 percent of the voters who voted in that jurisdiction in the last general election) and a minimum "yes" vote (60 percent of the turnout requirement).
House Joint Resolution 4219 would have amended the state Constitution to change the 60 percent voter-approval requirement to 50 percent plus one: a simple majority. It also would have eliminated the voter turnout requirement. Resolution language further stipulated that school levy elections would have to take place during primary and general elections.
But in order to become law, the measure had to pass by a two-thirds vote in both chambers; only then could the question be put to the voters on a statewide ballot.
State Rep. Laura Ruderman (D-45th District) was in favor of the legislation "... because it (would have brought) the decision out to the people," she said.
The legislation governing school levies has been around since 1932, she explained, and has only gone out once to the voters in that time period with regards to the validation requirement.
"A lot has happened in the last 70 years," said Ruderman. "Voters should be allowed to make a decision if they want (school levies to pass with a simple majority).
"Why should a football stadium or a PUD generation facility only require a simple majority to pass? Why should a school levy be held to a higher bar?" she said.
Ruderman said there were concerns that passage of HJR 4219 would be construed as a vote to raise taxes. But she reiterated, "Let the people decide what they want to do. It's not that we are punting or abdicating our responsibility. State law requires a Constitutional amendment to change the Supermajority Rule." She said what the house was voting on was whether or not to put this issue before the people.
Though the bill never made it to the Senate floor for a vote, State Sen. Bill Finkbeiner (R-45th District) did support the bill "... because I believe that there should not be a higher standard for schools than other voter-approved actions (like initiatives or referendums).
"Currently the 60 percent majority stems from the fact that levies are funded by the property tax and there is a constitutional amendment which states that all increases in the property tax require a 60 percent vote. The argument against the bill is that not everyone owns a house, and the people who don't own a house shouldn't be able to raise the taxes on the people who do. So they say that if only 40 percent of the people own a house then that's all it should take to turn down a property tax increase.
"I very strongly believe that we are overtaxed. At the same time, I very strongly believe that democracy rules and it should not take 60 percent for some actions (to pass) and 50 percent for others. ... I am conflicted on this issue, but ultimately come down on the side of equality for all voter-approved actions," said Finkbeiner.
Testimony in favor of the bill went something like this: Washingtonians have shown through recent initiatives that they value their schools. With the passage of recent initiatives that limit local governmental levies to a 1 percent increase a year, ballots will be crowded and confusing, making passage of school levies more difficult. Good schools help keep a community economically vibrant so making it simpler to pass levies makes good economic sense.
Opponents counter that when the majority of school levies and bonds pass anyway, why go to the trouble to enact a Constitutional amendment. Furthermore, opponents contend that the supermajority requirement affords extra protection for the taxpayer.
Ironically, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, the state's largest public employee labor organization representing 73,000 school and college employees in our state, said the union was not all that disappointed that the legislation failed.
According to Rich Wood, spokesman for the WEA, the union supported the first, un-amended version of the bill that did not require a school levy measure be placed on a primary or general election ballot.
"Even if it passed," said Wood, "it wouldn't have helped the schools. Having school levy measures on a primary or general election ballot makes it difficult for school budgeting."