Two States Reject Tax Increases for Schools, Children

By Michael Newman — November 15, 1989 5 min read

Voters in Michigan and Washington State last week overwhelmingly rejected ballot proposals to raise taxes for education.

Defeat of the plans--which lost by margins of 2-to-1 or more--returned divisive issues to the legislatures and renewed questions about the public’s willingness to pay for school improvements.

Advocates of the proposals insisted that the results were not indicative of popular dissatisfaction with schools. Instead, they attributed the losses to a wide variety of factors, including distrust of government, negative campaigning, voter confusion, and anti-tax sentiment.

“I don’t think this was a vote against kids,” said John LeVeque, campaign director for the so-called Children’s Initiative in Washington. The plan would have created a $360-million trust fund for services for the young.

Supporters of the initiative have vowed to press the legislature to adopt it in the next session, he said.

Although the initiative won only 34 percent of the vote, Mr. LeVeque argued that the campaign succeeded in creating “a broad new coalition that’s going to keep working for children.”

Observers described the Michigan situation as considerably more muddled, however. The legislature has been unable to resolve differences over the state’s school-finance formula for several years, and the defeat of two proposals that would have provided more money to schools may prolong the deadlock.

Some lawmakers said the legislature may be unwilling, or incapable, of settling the matter.

Proposal A, which would have increased Michigan’s sales tax by half a cent and earmarked the resultant $400 million in revenues for education, won only 28 percent of the vote.

Proposal B, which sought both to raise funds for schools and to provide property-tax relief by raising the sales tax by 2 cents, won approval of a mere 24 percent of voters.

“It’s tough to get any kind of a tax increase passed anywhere,” said Daniel Fugate, a spokesman for the Promote Michigan Education Committee, which backed Proposal A.

He emphasized, however, that he did not interpret the loss as a defeat for education. He remains “convinced the public cares about education,” he said, adding that the committee plans to stay intact.

Mr. Fugate also blamed opponents of the plans for their “negative” campaign. “They misled voters and confused them,” he said.

John D. Marrs, campaign director for Proposal B, said the presence of Proposal A on the ballot “confused the voters terribly.” Mr. Marrs also observed that divisions within the education community hurt both proposals. The state’s two teachers’ unions supported Proposal A, while most administrators’ and superintendents’ groups favored the other plan.

But both Mr. Fugate and Mr. Marrs blamed the legislature for what they said was its lack of leadership.

“To me, this vote says there’s some expectation that there ought to be some agreement over there,” Mr. Marrs said.

Some legislators agreed with that criticism, but said school-finance equity was an unusually tough issue.

“I don’t think the mood here now is to put anything more on the ballot,” said Senator Dan L. DeGrow, chairman of the appropriations panel for K-12 schools. “The mood is to deal with this problem internally.”

That will not be easy, he admitted, and some colleagues agreed.

Because school finance “involves political as well as technical problems,” said Representative H. Lynn Jondahl, it is a particularly intractable problem for the legislature.

Proposed changes in the complex funding formula are often difficult for lawmakers to understand, he said. Moreover, he noted, members frequently find themselves under heavy, conflicting pressures on the issue from different constituent groups.

But Mr. Jondahl, who chairs the House Taxation Committee, also said the legislature may have permanently lost credibility on the issue, and suggested formation of a citizens’ task force to address the matter.

“Maybe what the people are telling us is, ‘You bunch of disreputable characters can’t be trusted with this,”’ he said.

Supporters of the Washington initiative--which would have raised the sales tax by 0.9 cents--also consoled themselves with the knowledge that they were challenging one of the basic facts of political life.

“We knew going in that passing a tax increase is a difficult proposition,” said Mr. LeVeque.

A $350-million budget surplus produced by the state’s thriving economy made the tax increase all the more unpalatable to voters, he added.

Ronn Robinson, education adviser to Gov. Booth Gardner, said the Governor’s next budget would include increased aid for children’s programs.

“The problems are still there, and we will continue to address them,” Mr. Robinson said.

Senator Dan McDonald, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and an opponent of the initiative, said he thought the Senate would approve higher spending on such programs.

“We may have differed on this one issue,” he said, “but we know we all have to work together.”

Still, supporters of the initiative displayed some bitterness about the campaign, during which both sides traded accusations about each other’s veracity and intentions.

Carla M. Nuxoll, president of the Washington Education Association, for example, vowed to turn against opponents one of their key contentions, which was that there was already enough money in state coffers to fund children’s programs.

“We are going to be taking the opponents’ arguments at face value,” she said. “We’ll be coming right back at them.”

In the nation’s only two gubernatorial campaigns, Lieut. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia and U.S. Representative James J. Florio of New Jersey were victorious. Both are Democrats.

Although education had not been a major factor in either campaign, education groups greeted the results with satisfaction.

Edward J. Gallagher, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, predicted that the union would enjoy “greater accessibility” with Mr. Florio than it did with his Republican predecessor, Thomas H. Kean.

“We’re ecstatic” about Mr. Wilder’s victory, said Madeline Wade, president of the Virginia Education Association. Mr. Wilder--who won by a razor-thin margin that was subject to a recount--has pledged to raise teachers’ pay.

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 1989 edition of Education Week as Two States Reject Tax Increases for Schools, Children