Class-size initiative is disingenuous

Initiative activist Tim Eyman had a mischievous idea. The state Supreme Court unwound Eyman’s signature issue last year when it ruled that a supermajority requirement for tax increases cannot be imposed by ballot initiative.

The court’s decision means that the higher vote requirement can only be established by amending the constitution. Amendments require a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Legislature plus voter approval. Lawmakers who have chafed under the supermajority requirement for years are unlikely to volunteer for the restraints.

Eyman figured he had a solution. He drafted I-1325. It would have cut the state sales tax from 6.5 percent to 5.5 percent unless the Legislature passed the supermajority amendment. Critics called the measure extortion, diabolical, mean-spirited and reckless. Now, just call it done. He didn’t get the signatures required to qualify it for the ballot.

Echoing the Olympia politicians he lambasts, Eyman said in a statement, “We worked really hard but … fell short this year.”

That’s pretty much what lawmakers told the state Supreme Court about their lack of progress on school funding.

Though Eyman failed, another mischievous measure has apparently qualified. Initiative 1351 is the class size reduction measure backed by the Washington Education Association.

It’s even more disruptive and disingenuous. Eyman’s sales tax reduction would have cost the state about $2 billion over the two-year budget cycle without specifying what programs and services would be cut. I-1351 would mandate increased spending of more than $3.4 billion a biennium without identifying a funding source or telling voters what would be cut to accommodate the new spending.

Voters have bought it before. Initiative 728, sold as a cost-free class size reduction measure in 2000, passed with 72 percent approval. When the economy slowed, lawmakers suspended it, finally repealing it in 2012. A more honest approach was taken in 2004 with Initiative 884. It proposed a one-cent sales tax increase to boost funding for the K-12 system, early learning programs and higher education. Voters rejected it 60-40.

No wonder I-1351 hides its costs.

The 2015 Legislature already confronts multiple challenges, beginning with a $1 billion shortfall projected by the governor’s budget office.

The state Supreme Court is considering holding lawmakers in contempt for their inadequate progress on basic education funding. Up to $2 billion in new spending may be required next year to show good faith. In that ramp-up, remember, the state is already committed to reducing class sizes in the lower grades, where smaller classes are most effective.

Collective bargaining agreements currently being negotiated must also be paid for.

Plus there’s widespread recognition that the next budget must begin rebuilding state support for higher education.

It adds up quickly.

With I-1351, spending commitments over the next four years exceed current revenue projections by more than $4 billion. There’s no appetite for a tax increase of that magnitude, no secret revenue trove to be tapped, no magic loopholes to be closed. Absent the WEA-backed initiative, the state has a budget problem. With it, we have a budget crisis.

There’s some speculation that forcing a crisis is the point, that passing the initiative would force lawmakers to adopt new taxing authorities, including an income tax. That’s whistling past the graveyard. There may be tax increases next session. But they won’t fill the gap and they won’t meet anyone’s definition of reform.

Even those who celebrated Eyman’s defeat have reason to worry about I-1351. Public employee unions, particularly those like SEIU that represent social service workers, should recognize the risk to their members and those who rely on them for services. Their jobs and services will be lost.

Education reformers, including supporters of expanded early learning, ought to know that I-1351 eliminates the chance to experiment and innovate. Good education programs will be sacrificed for the costly class size reduction. Teachers lose. The initiative means money for more teachers, not more money for current teachers.

Higher education will again be on the cutting block.

Labor and liberal activists here have often worked together successfully to promote a common agenda. With this initiative, the WEA scraps that agenda to promote its own narrow interest. You’d think the progressive coalition would notice and speak out.

Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. Email rsdavis@simeonpartners.com

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