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Washington State Petitioners Demand 'Children's Initiative'

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In a major victory for grassroots lobbyists, Washington State voters have handed lawmakers a petition demanding that they come up with enough new revenue to increase funding for schools and social programs by $720 million over the next two years.

Known as the Children's Initiative, the petition was signed by 219,000 voters--thousands more than the 151,000 needed to put the measure before the legislature.

The enthusiastic support for the petition appears likely to heighten political pressures on lawmakers, who have wrestled throughout the decade with the effects of Washington's troubled economy, and Gov. W. Booth Gardner, who is currently seeking tax revisions that would lower some rates.

According to state law, legislators must take action on the initiative in the upcoming session or it will be placed on a statewide ballot for the voters to decide in November.

They have the choice of adopting the initiative as is, ignoring it and thus allowing it to be put before the voters, or creating an alternative plan that would generate the same amount of new revenue and placing both plans on the November ballot for voters to choose.

"We want more money for kids," said Rosemary Wolf, a program director for the Washington Education Association, which has actively campaigned for the initiative.

"Children are the future of our state and we can't neglect them any longer," she added.

Using the campaign slogan "Every Child Counts," the initiative--which was sponsored by the Washington State Alliance for Children, Youth, and Families and is supported by 90 other citizen and education groups--seeks to generate $360 million each year over the next biennium.

Under the plan, a Children's Initiative Fund would be created with money from a tax increase. Half of that money would be directed to elementary and secondary schools.

Although no specific programs have been targeted, the initiative supports decreasing class sizes, expanding early-childhood education, and anti-drug-abuse programs.

The other 50 percent would be allotted to welfare and social-service programs, such as prenatal care for disadvantaged women, services for abused and neglected children, and increases in state support for the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.

The money would be allocated by the appropriations committees, with the guidance of a Children's Initiative Fund Oversight Committee that the measure requires the Governor and the legislature to establish.

The initiative offers the legislature the option of "equitably" increasing any existing state taxes, or enacting new ones, to generate the added revenue.

If lawmakers do not do so, the ballot measure would mandate a sales-tax increase of 0.9 percent, to go into effect automatically on June 1, 1990.

Political observers are already wondering, however, how the Children's Initiative will be reconciled with another issue facing state voters: tax reform.

Last month, Governor Gardner proposed a revenue-neutral overhaul of the state tax system designed, according to a spokesman, "to be more responsive to the economy and increase revenue over the long term."

The Governor proposed slicing the current sales tax from 6.5 percent to 3.9 percent, and establishing a personal income tax of 3.9 percent.

The package also includes a cap on business, sales, and income taxes that would be linked to the rate of growth in the economy, as well as proposals for long-term financing for transportation, and local governments.

If the legislature adopts both the tax-reform measure and the Children's Initiative, they may both be on the ballot in November.

Because the Children's Initiative may involve a tax increase, the tax-reform proposal will most likely incorporate the new initiative, according to the governor's spokesman.

Advocates of the initiative are hopeful that the legislature will adopt the measure and leave voters with only the tax issue to deal with in the fall.

However, Michelle Radosevich, a wea lobbyist tracking the legislation, said the Republicans who control the Senate--particularly Senator Linda Smith, chairman of the Human Services Committee, which must approve the legislation--may seek to prevent the measure from reaching a vote on the Senate floor.

Ms. Radosevich said similar legislation in the Assembly has won the support of some Democrats. However, the powerful House Democratic Caucus has not yet taken an official stand on the issue.

"The key for us will be to mobilize public opinion," Ms. Radosevich said. "We can embarrass the conservatives into realizing how they'll look hard-hearted and backwards if they keep their foot on this thing."

Judith Billings, the state's new superintendent of public instruction, testified in support of the initiative before Senate hearings last week.

Ms. Billings, who signed the petition, has pushed for increased funding for schools. Last month, she proposed a school budget of $5.88 billion, $295 million above the level proposed by Governor Gardner.

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