Washington Educators Fight Referendum on Taxes

By Jessica L. Sandham — October 27, 1999 3 min read

Washington state educators are banding together to try to defeat a ballot initiative they say would pit schools against other government services in a competition for state resources.

Voters statewide will decide next week whether to pass Initiative 695, a measure that would eliminate the state’s annual 2.2 percent excise tax on motor vehicles and replace it with a flat, $30 licensing fee. The initiative would also require voter approval for any tax or fee increase at the state or local level.

It is one of a handful of ballot measures nationwide in the Nov. 2 off-year elections relating to precollegiate education.

If Initiative 695 is passed, it would cut the state transportation and motor vehicle revenues by one-third, or an estimated $1.2 billion. Washington state’s total two-year budget for fiscal 2000 and 2001 is $20.6 billion.

While the cuts would not directly affect the general fund revenues used to pay for education, educators say schools could eventually feel the pinch when lawmakers look to other revenue sources to shore up the transportation and motor vehicle budgets.

“When you take a big chunk of money out of the state budget, they’re just going to have to steal money from other places to make up the difference,” said Barbara Casey, the government-relations director for the Washington State PTA. “When you live in a state with no income tax, you just can’t keep carving away at our revenue sources.”

Too Many Votes?

But the measure’s supporters note that Washington is the sixth-highest-taxed state in the country, and they say the legislature could make up for lost revenue with a $1 billion budget surplus carried over from fiscal 1999.

“Initiative 695 increases the take-home pay of every educator and administrator in Washington,” Tim Eyman, a mail-order businessman from Mukilteo who organized support for the ballot initiative, said in an interview. “Public employees are taxpayers, too. It’s the raise they didn’t get in the last legislative session.”

Education groups also contend that the measure’s requirement that voters approve of any future tax or fee increases could become costly and cumbersome, potentially requiring a referendum every time schools want to raise lunch prices or library fees. Votes on such minor issues could discourage voter participation when residents are asked to decide more significant measures, such as bonds for school construction, said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

“School districts would have to pay to have the election, and publicize the election to explain why they’re having it,” Mr. Wood said. “That’s thousands of dollars that would otherwise go to the classroom.”

Initiative supporters counter that lawmakers would naturally want to limit the number of referendums they hold each year, asking taxpayers to vote only on the most essential increases. That’s been the case in Colorado, which has had a similar law since 1990, supporters say.

Washington voters will also decide whether to approve a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to guarantee the payment of school districts’ voter-approved general-obligation debts, thereby allowing districts to borrow money at lower interest rates.

In Texas, meanwhile, voters will decide on two education-related ballot initiatives:

  • A constitutional amendment that would allow state employees to receive compensation for serving as members of a governing body of a school district, city, town, or other local government district; and

  • A measure that would authorize the Texas Higher Education Authority to provide $400 in general-obligation bonds to finance educational loans to students.