Is 50% really that simple for school district levy votes?
Seattle Times education reporter
About 16 percent of school-district operating levies statewide in the past seven years have failed at the ballot box — even though they got more than half of the votes. That's because they fell short of the 60 percent supermajority required to pass.
Total operating levy elections
Levies that passed with the supermajority vote
Levies that failed with 50 to just under 60 percent of the vote
Levies that failed with less than 50 percent of the vote
If candidates needed as many votes as school districts to win elections, Christine Gregoire wouldn't be governor. George Bush wouldn't be president. Measures such as the 1993 anti-tax Initiative 601 would have failed, too, because it received just over 50 percent of the vote.
School districts in this state need 60 percent to pass tax measures — a supermajority in a country where a majority usually rules.
In November, however, voters will decide whether to change that. If approved, the measure, with the unwieldy name of Engrossed House Joint Resolution 4204, would allow 50 percent of voters to pass the property-tax levies that provide an average of 17 percent of school districts' annual budgets.
The resolution's supporters say it's all about fairness. If stadiums, parks and prisons can be built with 50 percent of the vote, then why, they ask, should school districts face a higher bar?
"It's just undemocratic," says Barbara Mertens of the Washington Association of School Administrators.
Opponents, however, argue that the 60 percent requirement applies not just to schools, but any government that wants to raise property taxes beyond the constitutionally protected limit of $10 per $1,000 of a property's assessed value.
"If you're going to ask people to waive their constitutional protection, it should take at least 60 percent of voters to do that," said state Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama.
This is the first time this question has been before voters, but it's been a perennial issue in Olympia, where its supporters have worked for 30 years to get it on the ballot.
It took a two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate to do so because the resolution seeks to amend the state Constitution. There have been enough votes in the House about a half-dozen times, but never enough in the Senate — until this spring.
It's been such a long time that in some families, the battle spans generations. Science teacher Sam Fields, for example, was in elementary school when his mother first joined the so-called "simple majority" effort. Now, she has Alzheimer's disease, and he's making campaign calls because he knows that's what she would want — and expect.
"My mom would be so amazed that it's actually got a chance," said Fields, who teaches in the Bethel School District. "She worked so hard on it for so long."
No organized opposition
Its supporters see this as the best — and probably only — chance they'll have for a generation.
"We don't think this opportunity will come again anytime soon," said Lisa Macfarlane, co-founder of the League of Education Voters, which strongly supports the measure.
The campaign has raised $2.6 million even though there is no organized opposition, enough to air several television advertisements. On Tuesday, supporters organized a news conference where Gregoire and all six of the state's living former governors urged voters to approve the resolution.
They used words like "unfair " and "shortsighted" to describe the supermajority requirement for schools.
"It's just as important to allow a majority vote for taxes as a majority vote in Congress to send our young men to war," said Dan Evans, a Republican who served three terms as governor, and also is a former U.S. senator.
The reason why schools need a supermajority is tied to the history of property taxes in this state. In 1932, voters passed an initiative limiting property taxes, and in 1944, they passed another measure that wrote those restrictions into the state Constitution.
Cities, counties and fire districts are among the government units that get a share of so-called "regular" property taxes.
School districts used to get a share of regular levies, too. In the 1970s, however, the state decided to collect that money instead, then send it back to the districts. That was done largely to bring more district-to-district equity to school funding.
School districts, however, have long argued that they need more money than what the state provides to offer a good education. The only way for them to do that is to put so-called "excess" levies on the ballot — the ones that require a 60 percent vote.
That levy money pays for the sixth period in many high schools, for example, which the state doesn't fund. It goes to books in some places, or computers, or hiring more teachers to smaller class sizes.
The resolution wouldn't affect school bonds — usually used to build new schools or remodel old ones. Those would still require 60 percent of the vote to pass. But school levies — largely for maintenance and operations — would not.
"Where's the crisis?"
Opponents fear the measure will lead to higher property taxes, but proponents point out that there are limits to what school districts can raise via levies — and most districts are already close to that point.
There is no organized opposition to the resolution. Orcutt is one of six people, including a teacher, who signed the statement opposing it in the voters pamphlet.
Some opponents say they don't see a need for a change, given that most levies do pass.
"Where's the crisis?" asked Paul Guppy of the Washington Policy Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes free-market solutions.
Orcutt also worries the measure, if approved, would let rich districts get richer, and leave poorer districts, especially those that can't pass levies, with proportionately less money.
And he worries that the measure would allow levies to be approved by a small number of voters because it would remove the requirement that voter turnout needs to be at least 40 percent of the number of people who voted in the last general election. (Supporters, however, say school measures haven't failed for lack of turnout for a long time.)
Not surprisingly, the state's so-called "education family" — the PTA, the teachers union and organizations that represent school administrators, school-board members and principals — all support the resolution.
But so do the chambers of commerce in Everett, Federal Way, Renton, Tacoma and Marysville.
If the resolution passes, supporters say nearly all school levies would pass on the first try, and districts would avoid the expense, time and disruption caused when they run second and sometimes third campaigns.
"What is the logic behind forcing school districts, whose primary objective is to work with students ... go through that second election?" asks Mertens. "What kind of sense does that make to anybody?"
Of the 261 maintenance-and-operations levies in 2006 and 2007, all but three received more than 50 percent of the vote the first time on the ballot, according to the Washington Association of School Administrators. With the 60 percent requirement, however, 32 more failed on the first try. Districts that have lost with 59 percent of the vote at least once in the past seven years include Arlington, Federal Way, Highline, Monroe, Mukilteo and Snohomish.
Proponents acknowledge that their biggest challenge is overcoming voters' fear that taxes may rise — even though they argue that won't be the case.
To pass, the measure needs 50 percent of the vote, plus one. A majority, in other words, to do away with the supermajority.
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org
|School operating levies that failed in King, Snohomish, Thurston, Kitsap, Skagit and Pierce counties since 1999, even though they received 50 percent of the vote. Cost to taxpayers in these six counties to rerun these votes totaled about $1.7 million.|
|County||1st vote||2nd vote||Cost of rerun|
* Partially based on 1999 election cost estimates.
Source: League of Education Voters
An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified the lawmaker who sponsored Initiative 601. It was Linda Smith, who was then a state senator.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company