Budget writers from both parties in Olympia are considering whether to send Initiative 1351 back to the voters with a question: Are you willing to tax yourselves to achieve smaller class sizes?
I-1351 squeaked by in November despite warnings from legislators and editorial boards of its steep, untimely price tag — an estimated $2 billion for the 2015-17 biennium, and an additional $2.7 billion for 2017-19.
Meanwhile, legislators must come up with as much as $5.7 billion for basic education funding through 2019 to satisfy the Washington Supreme Court’s ruling in the McCleary case. The Legislature is also facing a court decision to stop the boarding of mentally ill patients at emergency rooms. Providing the needed number of beds at state psychiatric hospitals and other mental health services will also be expensive.
Shortly after I-1351 passed, House Budget Chairman, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said, “Look, I don’t know how to pay for it, that’s why I didn’t support it,” Gov. Jay Inslee voted against it, though he remained unhelpfully mum before the election.
The Olympian reported that the chairman of the Senate House and Ways Committee, Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, recently said, “I have yet to find a legislator or the governor who says they can find a way to fund it. So we will find a way to correct it.”
Legislators could suspend implementation, but under state law that requires a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber within two years of its passage at the polls. That’s a long shot. Sending I-1351 back to the voters as a referendum would require only simple majorities. That’s the smart move.
When faced with higher state taxation, voters say no. In 2010, they turned down an initiative that would have imposed an income tax on high earners to finance a fund for education and health services. In 2004, they rejected a sales tax increase that also would have financed education.
The passage of I-1351 awakened the Legislature to the problems created by unfunded initiatives. One proposal would have amended the state constitution to require that ballot initiatives spell out how the budget would be balanced to make room for new spending. That effort has fallen by the wayside. But another bill is calling for budget-ramification language to appear prominently in all initiatives that call for more than $25 million in new spending per biennium. This is warranted, because many voters don’t read the fiscal notes affixed to the end of the ballot measures.
In complying with McCleary, the Legislature will be spending more on class-size reduction where it’s been found to be most effective: in grades kindergarten through third. I-1351 spends inefficiently, because it covers all grades and wrongly presumes the need is the same for schools in high-income and low-income areas.
This poorly conceived and ill-timed measure should be sent back to voters to see just how much they really give it value.
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