When is a law not a law? That seems to be the question taken up by The Herald’s editorial board, education “reform” groups like Stand for Children, the Seattle Times, state legislators and now the governor.
It is an odd question to ask, as it is directed at Initiative 1351, the class size initiative that the people passed just a month ago. That initiative was derided by the mainstream media, by liberal organizations and by public opinion-leaders as just too expensive. But the initiative prevailed statewide with majority support in counties east of the mountains, surrounding Puget Sound, as well as in southwest Washington.
As soon as the votes were counted finalized and even before, the powers-that-be were ganging up with the demand to suspend I-1351 immediately. But here is what our state constitution says about lawmaking:
“The legislative authority of the state of Washington shall be vested in the legislature…. but the people reserve to themselves the power to propose bills, laws, and to enact or reject the same at the polls, independent of the legislature, … The first power reserved by the people is the initiative.”
So Initiative 1351 is the law, indeed, with a constitutional ranking ahead of laws passed by the Legislature. That’s why the constitution requires a two-thirds vote of both houses to overturn, amend, suspend or repeal initiatives passed by the people.
So what’s the deal with Initiative 1351? How come the powers-that-be want to deep-six it immediately?
They didn’t propose to decapitate Initiative 1240, which enabled the creation of charter schools, which has floundered in its implementation, and which passed with only a 1 percent margin. When Initiative 776, which lowered car tabs for new vehicles, was passed in 2002, and then found unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court, the Legislature rushed to put it back into law. This decreased state revenues by $1 billion, money that would have gone to roads and transit. And just last year, when Boeing wanted a new $8.7 billion tax exemption, the Legislature went into special session just to give it to them. That took one day.
But these same legislators can’t find it in their hearts to fund Initiative 1351, which will reduce class sizes in public schools. So they want to overturn it. Consider State Representative Ruth Kagi’s (D-Shoreline) assessment: “We had a briefing last week … that estimated the cost of compliance with 1351 to be $1.9 million per year in the next biennium … There is no way the legislature can cut existing programs and raise enough taxes to address that level of funding.” So, the Legislature can give away tax exemptions at the behest of a single corporation, but they can’t find the money to fund a voter-approved initiative that directly benefits more than 1 million public school students.
What are they scared of? They can close tax loopholes, if they want to. State Representative Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, is leading the charge for this. This would bring in billions of dollars for public services. They could consider a capital gains tax on the wealthy, as proposed by State Rep. Laura Jinkins, D-Tacoma, and supported by State Reps. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline; Luis Moscoso, D-Bothell; and Mike Sells, D-Everett, as well as State Rep. Kagi, herself. This tax would bring in about $1 billion a year. That’s enough to fund Initiative 1351, and it would be paid by those wealthy individuals who have gained millions since the great recession.
Indeed, there is a multitude of ways to figure out how to fund Initiative 1351, and ensure that the funding comes from the people and corporations at the very top of the food chain. Just yesterday Boeing announced it will buy back $14 billion in stock and increase its dividends by 25 percent! Of that, $8.7 billion could be seen as a direct transfusion from citizens in Washington state. If we can move that much money to Boeing, we can certainly figure out how to fund Initiative 1351, and keep faith with the people and their constitutional right to make laws through the initiative process.
John Burbank is the executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, www.eoionline.org. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.