State Politicians Grappling With Mixed Messages

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When more than 20,000 shouting teachers, parents, and community activists rallied at the state Capitol in Olympia, Wash., at the start of the legislative session, they delivered a clear message to lawmakers: It's time to pay up.

With so many teachers out that day, hundreds of school districts shut down during the January event as protesters urged state leaders not to back down from initiatives passed by voters in 2000 that called for smaller classes and annual cost-of-living raises for teachers.

Nationwide, state lawmakers are grappling with equally demanding scenarios, as ballot measures backed by voters in sunnier economic times are severely stressing anemic state budgets—along with those responsible for making them—in ways not anticipated when they were passed.

And as if that weren't tough enough, some legislators must find money to pay for expensive education packages while being mindful of other voter-approved measures that limited their state governments' ability to raise revenue.

The mix of expensive education initiatives and woeful realities of current state budgets has left many legislatures with little wiggle room, said Michael Griffith, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, based in Denver.

"The public is all fired up about something, and they end up passing something that ties the hands of state legislatures," he said. "You have a lot of states out there hurting, but those states where voters have passed initiatives makes it even harder."

Mountain-High Debate

Colorado is a classic example of such tension.

Voters there approved Amendment 23 in 2000, amending the state constitution to require that Colorado increase education spending annually by at least the rate of inflation plus 1 percent, and to direct a share of income- tax revenue to a state education fund.

But voters had also passed a constitutional amendment—called the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights—in 1992 that restricted state spending and limited school districts' maximum annual increases. A separate, 2-decade-old measure caps the state's ability to raise property taxes.

Add to those measures an $850 million deficit in the state's current $13.8 billion budget, and it all makes for some messy fiscal times in Colorado.

In a replay of the Washington state protest, about 3,000 people endured freezing temperatures last month to attend a rally at the Colorado Capitol in Denver, where they urged state leaders not to walk away from the voter-approved school funding initiative.

Some lawmakers have considered tapping into the state education fund created by the initiative to pay for other state programs, and Gov. Bill Owens wants voters to modify the initiative to give the state more flexibility to fund education in difficult fiscal times.

John Myers, a leading school finance expert and a former state legislator in Kansas, helped draft Colorado's Amendment 23. He said he supported the measure because the state for years had not provided adequate education funding.

But Mr. Myers added that Amendment 23 might not have been needed if the 1992 Taxpayer's Bill of Rights had not cut so deeply into the state's ability to raise revenue.

"The question is, 'Where is the balance here?'" he said.

John Straayer, a professor of political science at Colorado State University, said the legislature has cut funding for higher education and other social services in part because Amendment 23 makes precollegiate education—one of the state's largest budget items—virtually untouchable.

"It's a fiscal train wreck," said Mr. Straayer, who has written a book about the Colorado legislature. "You have a series of measures the people have approved all converging in the context of a bad economy, to create what legislators themselves are describing as the worst economy in the state's history."

Voters, he believes, share part of the blame for wanting to have their cake and eat it, too: "They want the schools open and they want quality education, but they also don't like taxes."

Mr. Myers, the school finance consultant, says that while voter-approved education initiatives often play an important role in supporting improvements in schools, they can also lead to serious problems.

"What I have seen happen over the years is we have taken the authority and control of state budgets and taxation away from state policymakers, and that is not a good thing," said Mr. Myers, who is based in Denver.

"You don't get leadership from state policymakers because they have had power taken away from them through the initiative system," he said. "They become reactive."

Official Frustration

It's a point that may be well-understood in the Sunshine State, where Gov. Jeb Bush blames an initiative voters passed last November to reduce class sizes as a major reason other cuts to the Florida state budget must be considered.

What's more, voters at the same time passed a measure calling for universal prekindergarten that is estimated to cost Florida anywhere from $8 billion to $27 billion over the next seven years.

Gov. Bush proposed sending the class-size initiative, which could cost $1 billion a year, back to voters during a special election. That suggestion was effectively killed earlier this month, when every Democrat in the state Senate voted against the idea, and some lawmakers scolded the governor for ignoring voters' wishes.

As Gov. Bush was reminded, elected officials must walk a fine line when they talk about the prickly realities of democracy.

In California, Assemblyman Darrel Steinberg, the Democratic chairman of the Assembly appropriations committee, said he never blames voters for passing initiatives—even when those measures strain the state budget. He admits, though, that lawmakers' hands are often tied by the conflicting demands expressed at the ballot box.

Last fall, California voters passed the largest school construction bond in the state's history and a ballot initiative sponsored by the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger to increase spending on before- and after-school programs. Mr. Schwarzenegger's plan would cost about $400 million a year to implement—though it also requires adequate state funding before going into effect.

California faces a budget deficit estimated at $35 billion in the coming fiscal year.

Complicating matters is Proposition 98, a 1988 measure that amended the state constitution to guarantee minimum funding levels for K-12 education.

At the same time, California over the years has passed anti-tax measures, most notably Proposition 13, the bellwether 1978 initiative that capped local property-tax growth and has made it harder for the state to raise money for big budget items like education.

"Over the last few decades, the operational side of the state budget has been eaten up by initiatives," Mr. Steinberg said. "It leaves the legislature far less discretion to set priorities.

"We don't have the ability to lead and say we need to have a balanced solution to the problem."

Better Answer?

Washington state Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, finds herself torn between wanting to honor the choices of voters while at the same time knowing those choices bring a myriad of other budget complications.

Sen. McAuliffe, who supported the two education initiatives the voters passed in 2000, agrees the state could have done a much better job of paying for schools over the years.

But several Washington state initiatives passed by voters in the 1990s, and one passed in 2001, limit state spending and property-tax increases. Those measures, Ms. McAuliffe said, have dried up significant revenue that could have gone to education.

"People have to understand that when they vote for something, that has an impact on the state budget," she said.

The legislator hopes that by looking at revenue- producing possibilities, such as closing corporate-tax exceptions or taxing services not currently targeted, the money will be found to pay for the class- size and teacher-pay initiatives, which together initially are expected to cost between $800 million and $1 billion.

But Gov. Gary Locke, also a Democrat, has proposed suspending the two popular initiatives for two years as lawmakers work to close a $2 billion budget deficit in its $23 billion budget for fiscal years 2004 and 2005.

Ms. McAuliffe hopes, if possible, to find a better answer.

"The people of Washington made a statement with the initiatives that education is a top priority, and we have to find a way to fund them," she argued.

But, she acknowledges, not all initiatives are created equal.

"The question in my mind is do we honor the voice of the voters?" the state senator said. "That is a big question and a hard one to answer."

Vol. 22, Issue 28, Pages 1, 18

Published in Print: March 26, 2003, as State Politicians Grappling With Mixed Messages
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