Yesterday the state House passed by a 73-25 margin, a constitutional amendment that would eliminate Washington’s archaic 60% super-majority requirement for local school levies. While the bill passed with bipartisan support, it will face a much tougher battle in the more closely divided Senate. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote in both houses of the Legislature, plus a simple majority by the people.
The 60% super-majority requirement for school levies is a relic of a bygone era, when Washington was predominantly an agricultural economy, and property taxes were the major source of revenue for both state and local governments. It was originally instituted to make it more difficult for townspeople in rural communities to dramatically drive up taxes on the surrounding landowners.
What might have made some sense in the Depression-era, agricultural economy of the 1930s, makes absolutely no sense in the post-industrial economy of the 21st century. The fact that most school levies pass, is a tribute to the common sense of Washington’s citizenry. But the fact that most just barely pass — or on the second or third try — is a warning of how financially fragile our struggling school districts already are.
Eliminating the super-majority requirement is not a recipe for runaway property taxes, as some Republicans contend. State law prohibits school districts from raising more than a certain percentage of their operating budgets from local levies, and most districts are already at or near their statutory limit. But that is beside the point. If a majority of voters choose to tax themselves to improve their children’s education, a minority of voters should not be able to stymy them.
Local school levies are held to a ridiculous and unsustainable standard. In a political climate where consensus is increasingly difficult to come by, a 60% margin would be considered a landslide for nearly any ballot measure or office outside of a gerrymandered safe district. Voters overwhelmingly support spending more money on education, and it is incomprehensible to deny the will of the people on the grounds that their support is not overwhelming enough. To continue to give 40% of voters veto power over investing in our children’s education, is not only bad policy… it’s undemocratic.
And in the end, democracy is what this is all about. Republican opponents in the Senate should be encouraged to put aside their concerns and let this issue be decided by the people. If a majority of the people decide that school levies should be decided by a majority of the people… well… you can’t get much more democratic than that.