October 16, 2012 in City

Heated issues carry ballot

 

Charter schools

Supporters of Initiative 1240 think charter schools, which would be free of some of the rules governing standard public schools, will help the state meet its “paramount” duty of educating children. Opponents think they will make it harder to raise quality for all students, adding that voters have rejected them three times already.

A charter school is set up to do things differently, and in theory get different results, than standard public schools. I-1240 would allow eight a year to be set up over the next five years by nonprofit groups that would sign a contract either with the local school district or a new nine-member state commission. The schools would be exempt from most state statutes and rules that govern the public schools but comply with rules in their approved charter. They’d be subject to performance audits and get the per-pupil allocation that public schools get, currently about $5,800.

Supporters say that 41 other states allow charter schools as a way of bringing more innovation, choice and flexibility into the school system. Opponents say charter schools have uneven results and siphon money from the public school system, and that the state would be better off expanding successes from its Innovative Schools program.

Supporters have collected six-figure contributions from the state’s tech leaders like Bill Gates and Paul Allen, and $600,000 from Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton. Opponents have collected about one-twentieth the money, with the largest contributions coming from state and national teachers unions and a union that represents other school workers.

Same-sex marriage

Although six states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage, Referendum 74 would be the first approved at the ballot box if it passes in November.

Washington’s Legislature passed a law making such marriage legal last winter after impassioned debate in both chambers, with opponents concerned about the state’s infringement on religious groups opposed to same-sex marriage and supporters arguing equal rights shouldn’t depend on sexual orientation.

The day the bill was signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire, opponents filed Ref. 74 and in three months collected the signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Opposition still comes from religious groups, both conservative Protestant and Catholic denominations that believe the Bible forbids such unions. The law wouldn’t require any church to perform a ceremony for a same-sex couple or require its facilities to be used for one, but opponents say business owners who object on religious grounds shouldn’t be forced to cater for, photograph or rent to anyone holding a same-sex wedding.

Supporters say religious groups can let their beliefs guide their members but don’t have the right to impose those beliefs on others. State law already bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, they add, and same-sex marriage will be a boost, not a drag, on the economy, they contend.

The yes campaign has spawned seven separate committees, with the largest, Washington United For Marriage, raising more than $7.5 million, including significant contributions from Washington’s tech industry and some out-of-state sources. The no campaign has raised about $580,000, almost all from inside the state except for cash and in-kind contributions from the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage.

Referendum language is sometimes tricky, but this one’s pretty straightforward: Voters who think the state should grant marriage rights to same-sex couples can vote yes on Ref. 74; those who want to scrap the new law, reverting to same-sex couples having many but not all the legal rights as married couples, can vote no.

Tax increases

Washington voters may like nothing better than making it harder for the Legislature to raise taxes. Since 1993, they’ve had four chances to require any such increase receive a two-thirds majority. Some came with other provisions, some didn’t survive court challenges, but all passed at the ballot box.

That’s currently the law on the books in Washington state, although a judge in King County ruled such a provision is unconstitutional. That case was heard by the state Supreme Court in late September.

Initiative 1185 would again require that any new tax, or existing tax raised, receive a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Legislature as well as a governor’s signature. It also requires the Legislature to pass any increases in fees, including road or bridge tolls, with a simple majority rather than giving that authority to boards or commissions.

An almost identical measure, I-1053, passed in 2010, the same year the Legislature suspended a 2007 initiative and passed several tax increases with simple majorities.

All these proposals originated with Tim Eyman, whose avocation and occupation have become proposing initiatives and getting them to the ballot. He calls it a reasonable check on the Legislature’s inclination to raise taxes. This year his network of longtime supporters was supplemented by signatures paid for by major national corporations like the Beer Institute, BP Oil and Conoco Phillips, as well as Washington business groups.

Opponents say that’s because businesses like the fact that they can receive tax exemptions with a simple majority but can’t lose them unless the Legislature musters a supermajority. If Eyman and his supporters want a two-thirds majority for taxes, they should get the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment and send it to the voters, opponents say. That, too, would require a two-thirds majority of both chambers.

Marijuana legalization

Washington voters have a chance to further expand a citizen’s ability to smoke marijuana and add to the conflict between the state and federal government over drug laws with Initiative 502.

Fourteen years ago, voters easily approved a measure allowing residents to use marijuana for medical purposes on the recommendation of a doctor. Not so easy was the ability to codify things such as how and where a patient might obtain that drug, which remains illegal under federal law.

The clash between state and federal law reached a high-water mark last year when U.S. district attorneys in Washington began cracking down on “dispensaries” even as the Legislature was passing a law to regulate their business. The result was the closure of many dispensaries and a gutting of the bill through a partial veto.

I-502 would allow anyone over 21 to possess, grow or distribute marijuana in small amounts, although growers and distributors would need a state license, which would cost $250 for an application and $1,000 for an annual renewal. Growers and sellers couldn’t operate within 1,000 feet of certain institutions, like schools, playgrounds or day care centers.

Only adults could use or grow marijuana. Driving under its influence would be illegal if the driver is above a set level of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, based on a blood or breath test.

The law would also tax marijuana at each step from production to sale. A “fully functioning” marijuana market would generate about $2 billion in taxes over five years, although that assumes people buy from licensed operators instead of illegal dealers, and it assumes the conflict between state and federal law is worked out.

Supporters say the state’s current laws have failed and that this is a way to fix that while generating tax money for the state and cutting out the drug cartels. Opponents, who include people who operate marijuana dispensaries, say the limits of driving under the influence are unscientific and that this won’t fix the conflict between state and federal law.

Supporters have raised more than $3 million, with significant support from out of state. Opponents have raised about $6,000 from a handful of Washington contributors.

Resolutions, advisory votes

While issues like same-sex marriage, legalized marijuana and charter schools capture much of the attention for ballot measures this fall, Washington voters also are being asked to amend the constitution and give opinions on two tax changes.

The constitutional amendments:

Senate Joint Resolution 8221 would change the limits on the amount of money the state can borrow for bonds and revise the way the limit is calculated. Right now the state can sell bonds as long as the principal and interest it pays in any year is less than 9 percent of the general revenue the state takes in. SJR 8221 would drop that to 8.5 percent in fiscal 2014, 8.25 percent in fiscal 2016, and 8 percent in fiscal 2034. It would change that base amount to an average of revenues for the previous six years, rather than the current three, but expand what’s counted as general revenues to include property taxes.

Supporters include State Treasurer Jim McIntyre and some of the Legislature’s capital budget leaders. They say it will improve the state’s credit rating and even out borrowing that tends to spike when the economy is good and drop when it’s bad, which they argue is the opposite of what the state should do to create jobs in tough times. Opponents include the Labor Council and construction unions. They note that the state already has an excellent credit rating and say it will reduce state construction projects and shift the burden to local governments and school districts.

Senate Joint Resolution 8223 would change the constitution to allow Washington State University and the University of Washington to invest in private funds. Supporters say well-managed investments will provide money at a time when the state has cut funding and courses have been limited. Opponents say it will allow the schools to make risky investments rather than spending the money on student programs.

Advisory Vote 1 asks voters opinion on legislation that eliminates a Business and Occupation tax credit large banks receive for home mortgages. The credit is worth an estimated $170 million to the banks over 10 years, although the same bill provided B&O tax breaks for data centers, public docks, farm product manufacturers and newspapers, so the net gain to the state is $24 million over 10 years. It passed 74-24 in the House and 35-10 in the Senate.

Advisory Vote 2 asks an opinion on a bill that extended the tax on some petroleum products. The 0.5 percent tax was due to expire in 2013; the Legislature dropped it to 0.3 percent but extended it to 2020. It passed 93-1 in the House and 40-0 in the Senate.

Local measures

City of Medical Lake EMS levy: If approved by a simple majority of voters, the city’s EMS property tax levy of 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation within city limits would continue to be collected for six years commencing in 2013.

Rosalia Park and Recreation District M&O levy: If approved by voters, a special levy of 52 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation would be collected on property within the small district for one year.

Spangle Cemetery District M&O levy: If approved by voters, a levy of 15 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation would be collected on property within the small district.

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