The spirit of I-695 is alive in 2 measures

  • WARREN CORNWALL and ERIC STEVICK / Herald Writers
  • Saturday, October 28, 2000 9:00pm
  • Local NewsLocal news

By WARREN CORNWALL and ERIC STEVICK

Herald Writers

Initiative 695 may be dead, but its children are very much alive.

The state Supreme Court’s decision Thursday rejecting the tax-cutting measure comes at the height of the campaign for six initiatives that will come before voters this November, two of them from I-695’s creator.

The high court’s ruling has drawn attention to the potential pitfalls facing an initiative and sparked renewed warnings from some that several of the initiatives on the ballot could encounter the same legal fate.

Measures garnering the most legal attention include Eyman’s Initiative 722, which would cap property taxes and roll back some tax increases, and Initiative 729, which would open the door to charter schools.

Scott Noble, the King County assessor and leader of the campaign against I-722, said the initiative, dubbed "Son of 695," has the same flaw as its predecessor: It combines more than one law on a single ballot measure.

"Like father, like son," he said.

Eyman countered that the initiative is aimed solely at limiting taxes that governments might increase to make up for the state auto license tax, which was eliminated by I-695 and replaced with a $30 fee.

"We think 722 is absolutely dead-on legal," he said.

The initiative would repeal any tax or fee increases passed by Washington governments in the second half of 1999 — a provision targeting governments that might have raised taxes to avoid the voter approval required by I-695 starting in 2000.

It would also cap increases in two portions of the property tax. It would allow valuation of a property by the county assessor to rise no more than 2 percent in one year, and it would put a similar cap on overall property tax revenues for all but voter-approved property taxes.

Noble said those combined issues violate the constitutional requirement that any law have a single unifying subject. The property tax provisions, he said, could also violate constitutional requirements that equal properties be taxed equally by shifting more of the property tax burden to people whose homes don’t have rising market values.

Noble, who is campaigning against the initiative on his own time, said he expected a court challenge.

Eyman said several attorneys reviewed the initiative and believed it would pass muster. In the past, he has argued that the initiative is fair because it holds all homes to the same tax caps.

Even if they are overturned in court, initiatives still enable voters to spur lawmakers to action, said Eyman. He noted that the Legislature rushed to make car tabs cost $30 after a King County Superior Court judge overturned I-695.

Opponents of I-729, which would allow 20 charter schools a year across the state, have questioned whether the taxpayer-supported, independently operated schools would be legal under a clause in the state constitution that requires a "general and uniform system" of public schools.

If I-729 passes, it could be challenged in the courts based on how charter schools would be governed and financed, said Barbara Mertens, assistant executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators.

Under I-729, school boards and universities would sponsor charter schools, which would be run by their own independent boards. State-allocated money would follow the student from the traditional public school to the charter public school.

"Locally elected schools boards are the mechanism of governance that have been set up in the constitution, and you can’t privatize that," Mertens said.

"It’s totally a red herring," said Judith Billings, former state superintendent of public instruction and co-chairwoman of the I-729 committee.

Look around the state at the diversity of schools that already exists, from international programs to schools for dropouts, she said. They are by no means uniform in their curriculum and how they are operated, she said.

Mertens said she doesn’t know if I-729 will be challenged if it passes. "It all depends on our ability to have the resources available to carry it forward," she said.

Aside from the coming election, the Supreme Court ruling has renewed talk of revising the initiative process to alert voters to potential legal problems.

"Why waste the taxpayers money for something that isn’t even going to go into law," said Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park, who is drafting legislation to have initiatives reviewed by the state Supreme Court before they go on the ballot.

The state spent $225,000 interpreting I-695 and defending it from court challenges, said Gary Larson, spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office. The attorney general is required to defend any initiative passed by voters.

Attorney General Christine Gregoire in 1993 backed the creation of a panel of legal experts to review initiatives that garner enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. The findings of that panel would then be publicized to help educate voters, said Larson.

"She’s still supportive of the concept," Larson said.

But Eyman said it would be cumbersome to have the Supreme Court review initiatives.

A panel like the one suggested by Gregoire would lend itself to political manipulation and could skew rulings unpopular with the political establishment, he said.

"I think it’s just another power grab," he said.

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