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Wed., Oct. 13, 2010, midnight

Editorial: Safety, jobs referendum a bad path to good end

From its inception, Referendum 52 has suffered from severe identity crisis.

The Legislature called it the “Jobs Bill” and claimed it would put people to work “in every corner of the state.”

The final bill report written by the lawmakers’ own staff described the ballot measure as a method for “funding construction of energy cost saving improvements to public facilities.”

Now, advocates leading the campaign for voter approval on Nov. 2 emphasize neither jobs nor energy efficiency, but rather student health and safety. Retrofitting that would occur with $505 million in bonds to be issued under Referendum 52, they note, would remove such contaminants as lead, mold, asbestos and CO2 from aging schools, including K-12, college and university buildings.

Even settling on an acceptable ballot title for so unfocused a measure took a judge’s intervention. Referendum 52 couldn’t be called a jobs bill because it specifies no goals or requirements for job creation, ruled Thurston County Superior Court Judge Carol Murphy. And, she said, the title must explain something the original neglected to mention: The measure would extend a sales tax on bottled water, now scheduled to expire in 2013.

Referendum 52 sets laudable goals. What’s not to like about job creation, energy savings and health and safety improvements? But those lofty promises lie at the end of a circuitous and questionable path.

If the measure passes, the state will be authorized to issue $505 million in bonds over the next five years. The money would go to educational institutions through a competitive grant process in which funded projects would have to achieve sufficient savings to pay for the costs.

That sounds hard to pass up, assuming the efficiency estimates are accurate, which they often aren’t. But it’s more complicated than that.

The general obligation bonds would be amortized over 29 years and the debt service during that period would cost the state $937 million. That’s a lot of bottled water, and that designated funding source would dry up if voters approve Initiative 1107, which would repeal the bottled water tax. If so, the repayments will have to come out of the already stressed state general fund.

In the end, state taxpayers would pay off the nearly $1 billion while the schools and colleges could divert their energy savings to cover other budget items. There’s no reason to believe any of the offsetting efficiencies would go back to taxpayers.

In the meantime, the state will be saddled for three decades with the repayment – not to mention more than $10 million it’s been estimated it will cost for various administrative activities during the five years that the bonds are being issued.

No one will quarrel with the various objectives that have been identified with this measure. But to justify such a long-term commitment of tax dollars, a more focused and clear-cut vehicle is needed.

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