OLYMPIA – School districts looking for money to build new schools will continue to need a 60 percent supermajority to pass bond issues. A proposed constitutional amendment to ask voters to lower that requirement to a simple majority failed decisively Tuesday in the Senate.
Arguments that a minority of voters shouldn’t be able to thwart the needs for new or reconstructed schools didn’t sway Senate Republicans, who countered taxpayers need the protection of stronger public support for a tax levy that can last as long as 30 years.
“We have schools that are so overcrowded I wonder how the fire marshal allows those schools to open their doors,” said Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, the constitutional amendment’s prime sponsor.
Some schools struggle for years to pass bond issues, collecting more than 50 percent support but failing to get the supermajority. Others districts gain that supermajority but still have bond issues fail because not enough voters cast ballots to meet the constitutional requirements to validate based on a percentage of ballots cast in the last general election, Wellman said.
The latter is a particular problem in the years after presidential elections with record turnout, she said.
But Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said lowering the higher vote requirements could result in huge tax increases in some districts with “zero protections against costs.”
“Before we go to the hardworking taxpayers, we need reforms,” Schoesler said.
Republicans proposed to change the constitutional amendment to require a 55 percent majority to pass a school bond and exempt construction from prevailing wage requirements that they contend increase the costs of the projects. But the original amendment had no reference to prevailing wage requirements, and that change was blocked by a ruling it was outside the scope of the original proposal.
Republicans then tried quickly to introduce an amendment with just the 55 percent supermajority, what Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, called splitting the difference between the current requirement and Wellman’s proposal. But Democrats objected that was simply a delaying tactic and blocked it from the discussion.
Wellman said the change would “allow democracy to rule” and contended that many people don’t know school bonds need 60 percent approval.
Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, countered that for all the talk of democracy “this is a constitutional republic.” In her northeast Washington legislative district, she said, school districts have been able to pass bond issues by being responsive to their voters.
When Republicans talked about a reluctance to change the Washington Constitution, Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, pointed out the state’s founders did not require supermajorities to pass school bonds. That was added to the constitution during World War II, when some voters were concerned that people who weren’t long-term residents might vote for property tax increases then move away, he said.
The separate requirement that the bond election get ballots equal to 40 percent of those passed in the last election prevents school districts from trying to push bonds through in little publicized, poorly attended special elections, said Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn. Otherwise, if only three people vote, and two of them vote yes, the bond issue would pass, he added.
But Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, said all voters get mailed ballots for every election, so there are no “secret elections.” Making the outcome dependent on a certain level of turnout is unfair, said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.
“Why should we all be punished for people who choose not to vote?” he said.
The debate, while spirited, apparently changed no minds. All 28 yes votes came from Democrats; the 21 no votes came from Republicans and Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Democrat who caucuses with the GOP. A constitutional amendment needs 33 yes votes, and this one failed.
Asked why bring up legislation that Democrats knew would fail, Wellman said they wanted to put the school districts on notice they were supporting the change.
“There’s a chance that people will be convinced and change their minds,” she said.
But that didn’t happen, so the issue is dead for the session.
“You get one shot,” Wellman said.
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