Spokane County has to make clear to voters that a 0.2% sales tax proposal on the general election ballot would pay for new jails.
Superior Court Judge Tony Hazel delivered the ruling Tuesday afternoon. The decision comes after jail opponents earlier this month filed a petition in Superior Court, hoping to force Spokane County to provide voters with a more thorough description of Measure 1.
If voters approve it, Measure 1 would bring in an estimated $1.7 billion over the next 30 years for criminal justice, public safety and behavioral health projects. Spokane County would receive 60% of the revenues, and the remaining 40% would be distributed among cities and towns. The county plans to spend about $305 million on two new jails, although interest on loan payments would bring the project cost to around $540 million.
The county’s original description of Measure 1 for the general election ballot explained that funds collected through the 0.2% sales tax would go toward criminal justice, public safety and behavioral health, but it made no mention of jail construction.
Nine separate organizations, including Spokane Community Against Racism and the Spokane NAACP, challenged the short description of Measure 1.
The petitioners argued that that omission made the description inaccurate, misleading and prejudicial, in violation of state law.
“Few, if any voters, would oppose funds for ‘criminal justice, public safety, and behavioral health problems,’ ” attorney Karen Lindholdt wrote in her court filing. “Petitioners oppose the building of a new jail and believe the citizens of Spokane County will also oppose the building of a new jail if clearly presented with that option on the ballot.”
Spokane County’s attorneys argued that referencing jails in the ballot description was unnecessary, since the sales tax revenues won’t merely pay for new detention facilities.
Hazel sided with the petitioners and amended the county’s description of Measure 1 to reference “building and improving jails or correctional facilities.”
The judge said that, while Washington doesn’t have an extensive history of legal challenges to ballot measure descriptions, state law made his decision “straightforward.”
Washington law requires ballot measures to accurately reflect the resolutions that placed them on the ballot, Hazel said.
The Spokane County Commission, when it voted to put the question on the ballot, made clear that the 0.2% sales tax would pay for a new jail.
Therefore, Hazel said, the description of the measure on the ballot must specify that it will pay for a new jail. Omitting that information would be biased, he said.
County officials who support Measure 1 accepted Hazel’s ruling without complaint.
“It’s fair and reasonable,” Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels said outside the courtroom. “I think he applied the law fairly.”
Angel Tomeo Sam, who has connections with several of the nine organizations that fought the county’s original description of the ballot measure, called Hazel’s ruling “fair enough.”
Sam said she believes the new Measure 1 description will significantly affect how people vote on the proposal. Many will be less likely to support the sales tax now that the ballot language makes clear it will pay for jails, she said.
Hazel said it’s the court’s job to “call it like it sees it.”
“Both sides of this issue care deeply about our community,” he said. “That’s not lost on me.”