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2 Sides Plead Their Cases In School Tax Debate Should 60 Percent Requirement Be Dropped In Levy, Bond Votes?

Washington lawmakers were urged Tuesday to allow school districts to pass levy and bond elections with simple majorities instead of the 60 percent supermajority now needed.

It’s a decades-old debate that has resurfaced: Is the supermajority requirement for school tax elections “the last protection for taxpayers” or an unwise and expensive mandate that undercuts the basic tenet of majority rule?

Lawmakers in both houses heard conflicting testimony Tuesday. The education community lined up in rare unanimity to support the change, but a number of citizens strenuously objected.

Proponents of a straight 50 percent-plus-one requirement hope voters will get the final say in a statewide ballot measure this November. Advocates concede it will be an uphill battle in both houses because a two-thirds vote is necessary to place a constitutional amendment on the state ballot.

“We have a fighting chance in the Senate, and if we get it through there, we’ll try it in the House,” said Dwayne Slate of the Washington State School Directors’ Association.

The Senate is narrowly controlled by Democrats; the House has a large Republican majority. But because of the two-thirds requirement for any constitutional amendment, it would take a bipartisan effort.

Senate Majority Leader Marc Gaspard, D-Puyallup, a backer of the change, said he thinks lawmakers simply should put SJR8215 on the ballot and let the voters decide.

Voters rejected a move 10 years ago to eliminate the requirement that school tax elections have a certain turnout to be valid, but they never have voted on a simple-majority amendment, Slate said.

The measure drew support from school board members, the Washington Education Association, state Board of Education, state school superintendent’s office, Public School Employees union, administrators, principals, the state PTA and the League of Women Voters.

Slate and others noted that nearly all important decisions, including legislative elections, are made by simple majority.

But foes of the proposed change said the supermajority is an important safeguard for taxpayers and requires local school districts to work with their patrons on an acceptable level. They said it would be too easy to slip a big levy or bond issue through a low-turnout election if the requirements are lowered.

Fred Buck of Seattle urged lawmakers to disregard the wishes of the “taxers and spenders” in the education community and their effort to “strip away the last protection for taxpayers.”

He and other witnesses said that with a 50-percent-plus-one rule and no turnout requirement, schools could pick an inconvenient or hurry-up election date to discourage a big turnout and then publicize the election only to their supporters. Backers could overwhelm disorganized opposition, Buck said.

“I fear this will precipitate a property tax revolt,” said one sympathetic Senate Education Committee member, Harold Hochstatter, R-Moses Lake.

Several critics identified themselves as members of Ross Perot’s United We Stand America movement and said they see levy elections as one way to restrain spending.

“Voters voted for change; they didn’t vote for a failing education bureaucracy,” said Cecil Escalante of Lacey. “Levies are the last vehicle for holding school districts’ feet to the fire.”