Suspend I-1351 for state’s sake

There’s a reason why it takes two-thirds majorities in both the state House and Senate to amend a voter-approved initiative: Initiatives, even those that pass by relatively slim margins, represent the will of the voters, and that direction is not something that lawmakers should take lightly.

But when the Legislature convenes in January, among its first actions ought to be votes to suspend Initiative 1351, which mandates the hiring of 7,400 teachers and another 18,000 other school employees statewide. When The Herald Editorial Board argued against passage of the initiative before the Nov. 4 election, we weren’t arguing against the hiring of more teachers and smaller class sizes, but against an initiative that tried to fix a host of education funding problems with a tool that was focused only on hiring and not on how to best allocate funding.

It’s cliche, but good intentions often result in unintended consequences.

The passage of I-1351, with about 51 percent support of voters, is expected to result in a budget gap of more than $2 billion for the state’s 2015-17 budget, the Associated Press reported last week. That gap grows to $4.7 billion for the following two-year budget cycle.

The shortfall for 2015-17 doesn’t include the budget obligation the Legislature faces in satisfying the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision to provide “ample” support of basic education. With a mandate from the Supreme Court to increase school funding, and the voters’ mandate in I-1351 to shrink class sizes, there is concern that funding for other needs, especially among the social services, and even within education itself, will be threatened.

For example, the state already finds itself paying court-ordered fines because of an inadequate number of psychiatric beds at state mental hospitals and is confronted with the costs in fixing weaknesses in its foster care system.

Concentrating the money on K-12 education, as the initiative and McCleary could easily do, could squeeze funding for early childhood education on one end and higher education, particularly community and technical colleges, on the other end.

Even if some new revenues — what most of us call taxes — can find approval, which won’t be simple in a Republican-controlled Senate, this will not be a budget balanced without program cuts. In preparing his two-year budget proposal, which is scheduled to be released in December, Gov. Jay Inslee told state agencies and departments to submit budgets that included 15 percent reductions, deep cuts for departments that have lost funding in previous years. Cuts can not be made in other areas of the budget, such as pensions, debt payments and Medicaid benefits, putting further pressure on those programs considered “discretionary,” but on which many people rely.

It’s likely that many voted for Initiative 1351 thinking, as the state Supreme Court did, that they could show their own contempt for a legislative body that has dragged its feet in meeting its obligations to fully fund education. But we don’t believe they wanted their vote to complicate that process and possibly jeopardize other important work and needs in the state.

With that message sent and — we hope — taken to heart, the initiative should be suspended.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly identified the state House of Representatives as being Republican-controlled. A Republican-led majority will control the Senate when it convenes. The reference has been corrected.

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