Local school, business and political leaders who say that a Depression-era tax restriction is hurting education are hoping voters remove that hurdle with a constitutional amendment this fall.
“It’s just leveling the playing field,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, speaking at a campaign kickoff event at the Spokane Education Association office Thursday.
After years of legislative attempts, Brown and other lawmakers in spring agreed to ask voters to approve the amendment, known as HJR 4204.
It would do away with a 1932 requirement that schools seeking property tax levies of more than $10 per $1,000 of property value get approval from a 60 percent “supermajority” of voters.
Instead, the levies would need only to meet the usual standard for an election: a simple majority. The amendment would also do away with a longstanding requirement that voter turnout must equal at least 40 percent of the last general election.
A simple majority is the same standard, Brown noted, for local tax measures like Spokane County’s Conservation Futures program and mental health funding.
Proponents of the change say it’s wrong to hold schools to a higher standard, particularly since the same state constitution says that public education is the state’s “paramount duty.”
Voter-approved tax levies, they say, are critical for fundamental school needs such as books, more teachers and teacher training. Locally, the dollars also help pay for such things as crossing guards and librarians, SEA President Maureen Ramos said.
“A simple majority is what’s right for kids, and it’s right for the future of Washington,” said former Spokane schools Superintendent Gary Livingston.
Critics of the change – including most local Republican lawmakers – say it would be a mistake to make it easier for schools to raise property taxes.
“I think this will be defeated,” said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama. “People are very concerned about their property taxes, and assessments are rising very rapidly, now.”
As things stand, he said, 98 percent of school districts are winning voter approval for their levies, although it may take a couple tries.
If approval gets easier, Orcutt said, school districts are likely to simply ask for bigger levies.
“People are kind of at the breaking point,” he said.
The current supermajority rule tends particularly to hurt rural school districts with a thin tax base, proponents of the amendment say. Last year, according to People for Our Public Schools, 33 school levies in Washington got a majority of “yes” votes, only to fall short of the 60 percent requirement.
Economically, it’s in a community’s best interest to ensure schools are well-funded, said Greater Spokane Inc. President Rich Hadley.
“When a company looks at the region, they want to know that the schools are strong,” he said. “The bottom line is this (amendment) is good for business.”
The supermajority requirement dates back to 1932 and stems from a ballot measure passed by voters. They upheld the requirement five times over the next decade, ultimately adding it to the state constitution in 1944.
Since the early 1990s, state lawmakers have repeatedly tried to make it easier for schools to pass the levies. For five years in a row, House lawmakers voted for such a change, only to watch it founder in the Senate. That changed this spring, when Brown and other Democratic leaders managed to break the long deadlock.
“I knew we would eventually get there,” she said.
Proponents have so far collected more than $250,000 for a campaign urging Washingtonians to approve the change. Of that, campaign finance reports show that $85,000 comes from the state teachers union, the Washington Education Association. Locally, contributors include Spokane Public Schools former Superintendent Brian Benzel and his wife, Cynthia, who each gave $100. So did local attorney and Central Valley school board member Cynthia McMullen.