UPDATED 11 a.m. July 26 with comment from Washington Education Association.
OLYMPIA, July 26.—Washington election officials announced Wednesday that a charter-schools initiative has qualified for the fall ballot, making six questions so far that Washington voters will decide this fall. But the big surprise of the day was that there might be a seventh.
The state attorney general’s office is reviewing statutes to determine whether the state is required to hold an “advisory vote” on a tax increase for banks that passed the Legislature this session. It has to do with a provision of a tax-limiting initiative from 2007 that many had forgotten. The possibility of a public vote wasn’t even mentioned this year during any of the debates on the bank tax.
But one person who hadn’t forgotten was initiative sponsor Tim Eyman, who has been pressing state elections officials for a decision ever since the last legislative session ended in April.
It would be the first time that the state’s voters have taken an advisory vote on a tax measure. And while the vote might not carry any weight, it could demonstrate what the public thinks about the multi-year crusade against “tax loopholes” that has become a rallying cry for labor, liberal political activists and many on the Democratic side of the aisle.
No Surprise on Charter Schools
The announcement regarding the charter school measure had a pro-forma feel – neither campaign, pro or con, made any public statements or issued a press release the day of the announcement. The matter was essentially sealed last July 6 when the campaign for Initiative 1240 turned in 357,252 signatures, well in excess of the 241,153 that are required.
The measure would allow private non-profit organizations to be establish as many as 40 charter schools over the next five years. Proponents call the schools an answer to failing public K-12 school systems, primarily in urban areas, where they say schools are hamstrung by rules regarding curriculum, management and personnel. Under charter schools, public funding would follow the student, meaning that for the first time in Washington state tax money might flow to privately managed schools. Similar arrangements exist in 41 other states.
The measure is backed by some of the biggest names in the tech biz, among them Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his onetime partner Paul Allen. It is vehemently opposed by the Washington Education Association, among other groups. Rich Wood, spokesman for the state teachers’ union, said Thursday, “Teachers oppose I-1240 because it would siphon millions away from our existing K-12 classrooms into privately operated charter schools. Before we start experimenting with a new system of charter schools, we need to comply with the state Supreme Court’s recent order to increase funding for our public schools. Although charter school promoters paid $6 a signature to put it on the ballot, our kids can’t afford I-1240.”
Similar initiatives have been defeated by Washington voters in three previous elections, in 1996, 2000 and 2004.
The signature campaign was conducted at a lightspeed pace by paid canvassers after the initiative was filed in May. After court challenges to the ballot title were resolved, the campaign had just 21 days to obtain the signatures. The remarkably speedy drive cost somewhere in excess of $2 million – rather more expensive than the longer campaigns that are more typical. The short window meant canvassers earned high bounties—but it also made it difficult, if not impossible, for opponents to use one counter-strategy, a competing initiative. That strategy was employed by opponents to a 2010 initiative that would have privatized the state liquor stores.
Bank Vote the Big Surprise
That makes six measures so far on the Washington ballot this year – other biggies would confirm the gay marriage bill passed by the Legislature this year, legalize marijuana and reimpose the two-thirds for taxes rule that Washington voters already have imposed on the Legislature four times. Two non-controversial constitutional amendments also have been referred to the ballot.
This year’s two-thirds measure, I-1185, has a direct relationship to the big surprise of the day – the possibility that Washington voters might see a seventh question on the ballot. The people keep passing the two-thirds rule and the Legislature keeps repealing it, whenever it becomes possible to do so easily. The rule requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate for any bill that increases taxes, or else a vote of the people. That makes tax increases difficult, and lawmakers regularly dispense with it after two years, when initiatives can be modified with a simple majority vote.
Here’s the thing – the last time the Legislature deep-sixed the rule, lawmakers didn’t repeal the initiative – they “suspended” it until July 2011. And few, aside from sponsor Tim Eyman, seem to have noticed that I-960 had taken effect once again. That’s because voters passed a nearly-identical tax measure in 2010, I-1053, which superseded it. If 1053 hadn’t been in place, it’s a reasonable bet that lawmakers would have suspended the old initiative again this year, or just repealed it altogether. Because 1053 was in place, no one gave the old measure a second thought.
There was one element of the 2007 initiative that didn’t appear in the 2010 version. That provision requires a public advisory vote on any tax increase passed by the Legislature. So now, suddenly, that provision comes into play because of a tax bill that cleared the House and Senate this year with a two-thirds vote. SB 6635 ended a B&O tax exemption for first mortgage interest charged by interstate banks. The tax break had become a symbol for the “anti-loophole” crowd, and reluctant Republicans this year decided to support its repeal, providing the rest of the votes that were needed. A story in The Herald of Everett Wednesday disclosed that the attorney general’s office is reviewing the law to determine whether the matter must be placed on the ballot.
There’s no question about it, Eyman insists. That’s the way the initiative was written. When the tax increase was imposed on banks this year, lawmakers and the press might not have realized that a vote was required, but that doesn’t change the law. I-960 also requires a full description of the tax vote in the voters’ pamphlet, together with a listing of the legislators who voted pro and con. Eyman said he has been asking state elections authorities to make a public announcement about the vote since the last legislative session ended. The tax hike passed the final day of the session, April 11.
“I have mixed emotions,” he said. “I wish there hadn’t been any tax increases passed during the last legislative session. But I do like the fact that at least there is going to be some more accountability and more transparency over the fact that they did do that.”