Super-majority rule goes to voters

Reporter staff

After years of wrangling, Washington voters will get to decide in November whether to allow simple-majority approval of property tax levies for local public schools. Voters will decided if the state constitution can be changed to allow a simple majority yes vote to pass the property tax levies. Supporters say the change will help districts pass property tax increases they need to maintain their schools and improve educational opportunities for students statewide.

A super-majority is the requirement that a levy can only be approved if 60-percent or more vote yes on the measure.

School advocates and administrators across the state have long said the super-majority places a huge constraint on passing school levies.

“When a political candidate earns 59.9 percent, it is a landslide! But money for our children’s schools goes down in total defeat with that same result,” one legislator said.

Ironically, both the House and Senate had to have a super-majority vote in order to send the measure to voters. The state Senate voted last week 33-16, to send on the change, barely enough for the two-thirds needed for passage. The House passed the measure on a 79-19 vote exactly a month earlier. Voters, however, can approve it by a simple majority.

State Representative Fred Jarrett said that the vote on the super-majority rule is “obviously a positive thing, but is not a panacea for funding problems” in our state. He points to the levy lid as being more of a constraint on school funding for many districts including Mercer Island. He feels that it will be a “hard sell” to state voters concerned about taxes. “It will be a good test to see if people value education,” he said.

If approved, the constitutional change would also eliminate the validation requirement for levy passage. As it now stands, an excess levy or bond election can only be validated either by a voter turnout of 40 percent of those who voted in the most recent general election, or by a “yes” vote of 60 percent of 40 percent of the votes cast in the last general election.

The citizens of Washington voted to add an amendment to the state constitution in 1944, that required school districts to pass their levies and bonds with a super-majority requirement. The reason was to limit the ability of non-property owning citizens to raise taxes on landowners.

The change in the law would have little direct impact on Mercer Island.

“We are very fortunate on Mercer Island to have a community that has historically supported school levies despite a super-majority vote requirement. This bill is good news for all Washingtonians who believe that school levies should be treated equitably, with the same voting standard as other levies,” said School Board member, Lisa Strauch Eggers.

Education union leader, Mary Lindquist agrees.

“While local levies are not the answer to the current education funding crisis, this bill will make it easier for voters in other districts to demonstrate the same commitment to public education that Mercer Island voters traditionally have shown, said Lindquist, president-elect of the Washington State Education Association. “However, we are going to need a better long term solution to keep Washington from being near the bottom of the states in per pupil expenditures.”

If approved by the voters, the constitutional change could have a big impact across the state. According to Simple Majority 2007, a coalition that has lobbied for the constitutional change, nearly one-quarter of the more than 350 levy measures submitted to voters by school districts in 2006 and 2007, were turned down. Nearly all of them, 71, by yes votes just under the required 60 percent.

“This is great news, not only for Mercer Island, but for students and schools across our state,” said Terry Pottmeyer, Co-Chair, Committee for Mercer Island Public School . “Local levies and bonds are critical in providing money for technology, transportation, buildings and general fund items for our students. Removing the long standing super-majority ‘handicap’ on local education funding elections will finally put education funding on an equal footing with other publicly funded projects.”

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