OLYMPIA – The Legislature should give voters a chance to lower the majorities needed to pass school bond levies, school officials and students told a Senate committee Wednesday.
“It’s time to take this to the people,” Jim Kowalkowski, superintendent of the Davenport School District, told the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Committee. “Let them tell you to make this decision.”
Under the Washington Constitution, a property tax levy for bonds like those used for school construction and major renovations requires a 60 percent majority to pass. The Senate has proposals for two constitutional amendments: One would change that to a simple majority; the other would change it to a smaller supermajority of 55 percent.
School officials from around the state told committee members of struggles to pass bond levies with multiple failures before a success. Most failures received more than 50 percent, and many topped 55 percent, they said.
Students told of aging schools with multiple portable units, bad plumbing, leaking roofs and, in one case, a ceiling that caved in on a classroom.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal argued against some of the philosophical reasons for requiring the 60 percent majority as a way to impose fiscal responsibility.
“You get elected with a simple majority,” Reykdal told senators. They’ll pass a $50 billion biennial budget in the coming months and “you do it with a simple majority.”
If legislators are worried about the reaction of residents to rising property taxes, they should consider another source of income to reduce the state’s reliance on that source of money, Reykdal said. They should pass a capital gains tax to make the state system less regressive, he said.
That caused Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, to balk. A capital gains tax “is really an income tax,” he said, adding the Commerce Department has listed Washington’s lack of an income tax as one of the things that makes it attractive to new business.
“I have low-income residents in my district. Some have tax liens against their homes,” Padden said. “They’re barely able to make it.”
Committee Chairwoman Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, sponsored a simple majority constitutional amendment, arguing that making it easier to pass bond issues is a health issue for schools with lead in the pipes or asbestos in the walls. Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, said he proposed the separate 55 percent majority amendment as “an olive branch” to offer something to both sides of the argument.
The committee will vote on the two proposed amendments in the coming weeks. To become law, one would have to pass both chambers of the Legislature by two-thirds majorities and be approved by voters – with a simple majority – in the November election.
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