Ballot Builders

by DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & esides Tim Eyman's tax limitation Initiative 960 and Referendum 67, which has been the subject of television ads for weeks, there are four other state issues, all proposed constitutional amendments, on Washington's November ballot. Only one has drawn much public interest, HJR -- House Joint Resolution -- 4204. Here's a rundown of the four.

HJR 4204: "Simple Majority"

When a candidate for office wins an election with 59 percent of the vote, he or she calls it a landslide. When school administrators win 59 percent of the vote for a local school property tax levy, they call it a failure.

Since 1944 the Washington constitution has required school districts to win 60 percent majorities at the polls before collecting local taxes to supplement their basic education funding from the state. The move was rooted in the Great Depression.

"Washington voters put the supermajority requirement in the constitution as a protection against a small number of voters, who may not have been property owners, being able to raise property taxes on every homeowner in the school district," said Sen. Dan Swecker (R-Rochester) in a pamphlet sent to his constituents.

School advocates, from administrators to teachers to parent groups, say it's time to revisit the supermajority standard and allow the people the chance to dump it in favor of a 50 percent-plus-one-vote standard. If a "simple majority" is good enough to raise sales taxes for sports stadiums and to incorporate cities, it should be good enough to raise property taxes for schools, they argue. And they say, although the state is allocating more money than ever for basic education, it's also tying most of that funding to specific programs, leaving districts with fewer discretionary dollars and making local levies more important than ever.

"Those levies provide things like crossing guards, librarians, band and strings," said Spokane Education Association President Maureen Ramos, "the things that make our schools special." The supermajority issue is not that urgent in the Spokane district where voters routinely approve school levies, said Ramos at a recent news conference to kick off the "Simple Majority" campaign. "Few districts in Spokane County have failed levies in the last 15 years. But other districts in Washington don't have that level of support."

"Simple Majority" supporters cite about 30 levies statewide that have failed in recent years, despite winning majority votes. In those cases district officials had to resubmit the levies to voters, spending thousands of dollars on elections that they could have used in classrooms, supporters say.

HJR 4204 does one other thing: it eliminates the validation requirement, whereby a school levy would also need to be voted on by a certain number of people to even become eligible for approval.

Opponents of HJR 4204 say the 60 percent supermajority is an appropriately tough standard that levies should meet. And they cite the same 30 failed levies -- only a few of the hundreds of levies submitted to voters -- as evidence that almost all measures are approved, despite the higher standard. They say the state would set a dangerous precedent by making it easier to authorize taxes.

During legislative debate, Sen. Jim Hargrove (D-Hoquiam) said he would support the "simple majority" proposal if it applied to school levies run during November general elections, when voter turnout is higher, but not to levies run during special elections in the spring. His amendment failed.

HJR 4204 would not apply to school bond issues.

The "Simple Majority" campaign is certainly well funded. Supporters have donated more than $500,000, according to recent Public Disclosure Commission documents, an indication that they plan to make the most of their shot at convincing voters. ("We've worked 30 years for this," one educator said.)

Many business organizations have offered their support. "The No. 1 issue among 50 of our top business leaders is an effective K-12 public education system," said Rich Hadley, the president of Greater Spokane, Inc., at the "Simple Majority" news conference. "Companies want to know their schools are strong. This is good for business. It makes all the sense in the world."

HJR 4215: Higher Education Investments

Washington State University has convinced lawmakers to allow the money generated from the state trust lands that are dedicated to Washington's college and universities to be invested in stocks. Because that requires a change to the state constitution, the people will have the final say.

For years, state officials have deposited the money raised from cutting timber or mining minerals on state land into "permanent funds." Originally, that money, which is managed by the state's Investment Board, was to be routed into safe, but sometimes lower-yielding, government bonds. However, three times in the last 40 years, voters have changed the constitution to allow some of the recipients of those funds to broaden their investment options. Now, only the funds for higher education are subject to the restriction.

"WSU's agricultural and scientific permanent funds actually lost money during the past year due to an unfavorable bond market," says Larry Ganders, WSU's Olympia lobbyist, in a recent briefing paper.

This year, WSU went to the legislature with House Joint Resolution 4215, which would allow the six higher education institutions to work with the Investment Board to invest trust fund money in private equities.

"We're just looking for a better return," Ganders told the House Capital Budget Committee in February. He said the universities understand the risk that investing in the stock market carries, but he assured representatives that the universities weren't interested in taking big chances with their trust money.

The resolution passed both chambers with only two dissenting votes. One was cast by Rep. Bob Hasegawa (D-Seattle), who worried the measure would "place university funds at risk," he wrote in a pamphlet to his constituents. "I believe these funds should remain in stable investments, instead of gambling them in the stock market to create profits for stockbrokers."

ESSJR 8206: Budget Stabilization Fund

The title of Engrossed Substitute Senate Joint Resolution 8206 might be more complicated than the measure itself. The proposed constitutional amendment would require the legislature to create a Budget Stabilization Account and deposit 1 percent of the state's general revenues generated each year in it.

The measure allows the legislature to take money from the account if the governor declares a financial emergency, if a slow economy falls under certain conditions and triggers a mechanism that allows a majority legislative vote, or with a three-fifths vote of lawmakers in all other cases.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D-Spokane) and Sen. Joe Zarelli (R-Vancouver) say the amendment requires the state to have a reserve fund that it can draw upon during tight economic times.

Opponents, including Rep. Helen Sommers (D-Seattle) say putting the reserve fund under the protection of the constitution takes away some of lawmakers' flexibility in allocating taxpayer money. "Spending policy should not be written into legislation," she says.

SJR 8212: Inmate Labor

Many Washington prison inmates work for a living, making furniture, clothes and other goods behind their institutions' walls. "There is a benefit to their being there," Sen. Jim Hargrove told the Aberdeen Daily World. "They provide wages that pay for victim restitution. They give prisoners skills that prevent recidivism."

The state regulates correctional work industry programs so that they don't have unfair competitive advantages over local businesses. But in 2004, the Washington Supreme Court, after a complaint from a Western Washington manufacturing company, ruled that one of the five classes of prison industries did enjoy competitive advantages and it required that the nine prison/private partnerships that fell under that class be shut down.

Hargrove disputes that those companies shared competitive advantages. He told the House Human Services Committee in February that, although the state provides the space and the labor for a business/prison partnership, the business must pay locally competitive wages plus the sometimes greater costs of operating in a state institution. His SJR 8212 would allow voters to change the constitution to allow businesses to contract with prisons for labor, as long as the state labor programs don't give the businesses involved an unfair advantage.