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Pair Of Simple Amendments Lacking Any Major Opposition

Wed., Oct. 29, 1997

Washington voters are being asked to approve two amendments to the state Constitution, to allow four-year school levies and to enable local governments to offer homeowners loans so they can hook up to sewers.

The two simple amendments are expected to pass, reflecting their easy journey through the Republican-controlled Legislature and the lack of any major opposition.

The school measure, House Joint Resolution 4208, would allow public school districts to submit special maintenance and operation levies for up to four years at a time. Currently, districts can submit levies annually or can run two-year levies.

The two-year levies were approved by state voters in 1976.

Backers say the new option would give districts more flexibility and allow them to plan better, would cut election costs, and would allow educators and citizen activists to concentrate on improving schools, rather than worrying about levy elections every year or two.

“There are surely better ways for people to spend time than standing on the street corner in the rain every February holding up those (levy campaign) signs,” said Kelly Evans, spokeswoman for the Yes on 4208 campaign.

“It’s just another planning tool; it’s just good sound business practice,” said Dwayne Slate, associate executive director of the Washington State School Directors Association. “It’s why the voters went from a one-year levy to two-year levies previously.”

State analysts project a $6 million savings for taxpayers every two years, based on the assumption that the change would mean fewer elections. Districts cannot spend tax dollars to promote levies, but must reimburse counties for election costs.

Although it varies widely, the average district relies on special property-tax levies to finance roughly a fifth of its operating budget. The rest comes from the state and federal governments.

Advocates say the new authority wouldn’t be used by all 296 districts, particularly in the next few years. Prime reason: Once a district locks in a four-year levy, it couldn’t go back to the voters if conditions changed drastically in the second or third year, with a major influx of families, for example.

“It’s not without danger” and districts will have to carefully study their circumstances before school boards decide how long a levy to run, Slate said.

“Probably few would use the authority right away, this coming February, since there would be only a few weeks to plan and make a decision. It was the same way when two-year levies were first authorized,” he said.

Evans said some districts are mulling a three-year levy.

Foes of the move say fewer elections mean fewer opportunities for taxpayers to hold districts accountable. If a district knows it will face the voters at least once every two years, it will be more responsive and efficient, they say.

“With property taxes doubling every eight to nine years, constant taxpayer oversight is essential for efficiency and accountability,” state Sen. Harold Hochstatter, R-Moses Lake, says in the Voters Pamphlet.

“Do you believe HJR4208 - changing the state Constitution to give you fewer occasions to vote on schools issues - will improve education and make your school district more accountable to you? No way.”

Although the measure passed the 98-member state House with only three no votes and the 49-member Senate with but nine dissenting votes, Slate says a solid bloc of conservative taxpayers will oppose it, and that school forces shouldn’t take passage for granted.

School taxes account for a large chunk of the property-tax bill and tax critics will see less frequent elections as a loss of opportunity to try to sink the levies, he said.

The other constitutional amendment, HJR4209, would allow local government agencies to make loans for conservation, storm water and sewer projects. Voters previously approved such programs for energy conservation and water projects.

Without the change, it’s unconstitutional to extend the state’s credit to private individuals for such projects.

The measure would allow local governments to sell bonds to finance storm-water detention facilities, help homeowners hook up to sewers, and help commercial and industrial customers pre-treat their waste water before it heads to the treatment plant.

Rep. Gary Chandler, R-Moses Lake, chairman of the House Agriculture & Ecology Committee, said the plan would foster conservation and a cleaner environment, without boosting utility rates.

In participating locales, sewer rates would be frozen and savings from lower usage by commercial users would be dedicated to pay off the bonds. Homeowners would repay hookup charges, plus a low interest.

xxxx AMENDMENTS House Joint Resolution 4208 would give school boards the option of requesting levies of one, two, three or four years in duration. House Joint Resolution 4209 would allow local public agencies to sell bonds and make loans to help homeowners pay for hookup to sewer service, to finance storm water detention facilities and help commercial and industrial customers pre-treat their waste water before it heads to the treatment plant.

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