Wednesday, 20 April 2005

Overreaching & Striking Out on Levy Reform - Again

An attempt to remove the onerous super-majority requirement for passage of school levies in the state of Washington just died quietly without coming to a vote last Friday in the state Senate.

So just who was it in the Senate leadership that kept HJR 4205 from coming to the floor? Senator Rosemary McAuliffe had successfully gotten it through committee back on March 31. It was probably the same Senate leadership which had tried to get their own more aggressive version of the bill, SJR 8202, which would have applied to capital bond issues as well, through the Senate earlier in March.

Some background is in order here.

Local taxing districts are allowed to raise funds for certain aspects of public education via excess levies for maintenance & operation or technology or via bonds for capital improvements. (Teacher pay is funded statewide in order to enforce some degree of equity across school districts.)

Currently when such a levy is proposed, it must be approved by a 60% majority of voters in the district. Not only that, but in order to be validated there must be a voter turnout of at least 40% of the previous election. While there is a straightforward reason to think that votes should only require a majority, I am not entirely unsympathetic to reasoning that a bare majority of voters which includes many non-property owners passing a large tax hike in an unpublicized election might be subject to some abuse. The current law is illogical on three counts, however, and I've long wished we could at least remove the worst aspects of it.

First, tying the validation percentage to the previous election means that it is harder to pass these measures in years following highly publicized national elections than it is in off years. Any validation threshold should be independent of which year it falls in the election cycle.

Second, having the validation percentage represent the total vote rather than the yes vote leads to the illogical possibility that a levy might pass by an overwhelming margin, and yet fail because not enough OPPONENTS turned up to vote. Any such validation should require that the YES vote meet some percentage, so that it is never the best strategy for a NO voter to simply not vote.

Third, 60% is simply too onerous a requirement. That means that one vote short of half again as many yeses as noes results in a failing levy. In Washington it has not been uncommon in many districts for levies to fail in spite of garnering 58-59% of the vote. It's always seemed to me that those at 'victory' celebrations of NO campaigns which barely manage to get 40% of the people to vote against new taxes ought to feel pretty sheepish about their cheers.

Changing the supermajority and validation rules requires a change to the State Constitution which in turn requires a 2/3 vote in both legislative chambers, followed by passage of the Resolution by a statewide popular vote. In the 24 years that I've lived in this state, there have been numerous attempts to remove the supermajority requirement AND the validation requirement, but every such attempt has shot for the moon and come up empty. In fact the legislature has never been able to get any version of such a Resolution to the people for a vote since the statute requiring a 60% vote was first voted on by the people and put into the Constitution in 1944.

So while I'd be pretty happy with a more modest modification that required, say 54% majorities and a validation level of the YES votes representing 20% of the registered electorate, once again the reformers on this have overreached and left us with the status quo.

Admittedly there were some compromises suggested along the way that would have so eviscerated the effort to be almost as bad as nothing. One such failed amendment to both of the recent bills was to apply the simple majority requirement only to levies brought to vote in general, rather than special, elections. The idea with that, as with the stringent validation requirements, is to avoid "stealth" passage of levies by running special elections not broadly advertised except in the education community, in order to sneak them by the broader public. But for other reasons, special elections make sense, as there is less noise about all of the other issues distracting voters, and levy issues don't become surprise issues in the voting booth causing many to vote in ignorance, often in a gut reaction against raising taxes. Protection against stealth is warranted, but is best accomplished by requiring the YES vote to be some reasonable percentage of the registered electorate.

The fact is though, that the bill which never came to a vote in the Senate, though it breezed through the House, did not have a general election only provision (though an amendment would have surely been offered probably by either Hargrove or Sheldon - the conservative Democrats in the Senate), and the gutless leadership chose to let it time out, rather than risk a second defeat on the same issue in a single session.

Dan Steele, of the Washington State School Directors’ Association, told me that organization had lobbied the Senate NOT to bring their own more aggressive reform measure up, but rather wait on the House version so that the double defeat syndrome would not be a risk. The WSSDA offered their own summary of this issue seven years ago, and really the facts of that document have changed little since then.

This issue received some measure of attention in the media and the blogosphere back in early April, when the bill was in Senate committee, but it is only through the WSSDA that I learned time had expired, and the bill was dead. There was some disagreement between Columbian Watch and Horsesass on whether something is better than nothing on this, but I'm at a loss to understand the presumption that the Hargrove constraint to the general election would have passed, and I'm certain that leaving bonds out of the mix was a worthwhile compromise. Steele explained that in fact bonds, due to their long term nature, often require super-majorities for non-educational measures, whereas there are ways for localities to raise general property taxes for most other purposes (parks or jails or libraries for instance) which are not available for school levies which are always excess levies requiring a 60% yes vote. It's untenable to me that funding for schools should have a higher bar for passage than funding for libraries, parks, or jails.

No comments: