‘Simple majority’ a simplistic solution

In a never-ending struggle, the questions of school funding and limits on property taxes will once again be on the ballot at the next general election.

The Legislature passed House Joint Resolution 4204, which puts before the voters an amendment to Article VII, section 2, of our state constitution that would eliminate the requirement to obtain approval by 60 percent of voters to levy an excess property tax for the support of local schools.

In South Kitsap, as in almost all school districts, the effect in the near term would be to make it much easier to approve “maintenance and operations” levies. (The amendment would have no effect on school bond measures.)

Over the long run, though, the struggle that has lasted more than 80 years to get the Legislature to provide adequate state funding for a uniform system of common schools will continue — but with even less pressure on the Legislature.

Look at what has occurred over the past 25 years while 60 percent approval was needed for local school levies and consider what would probably happen if a majority of “50 percent plus one vote” could approve these levies.

In school year 1981-2, local levies provided almost 9 percent of total school funding in Washington state. This low share of the total was the outcome of a battle in the courts and the Legislature to provide a greater share of the total from state tax revenues.

In the years leading up to that battle, local levies had supplied about 21 to 24 percent of total school funding.

In school year 2005-6, local levies provided about 16 percent of school funding in this state.

Why go backwards after that epic battle in the late 1970s?

If the state pays a greater share of school costs, then districts with richer tax bases “export” tax revenue to districts with lower tax bases.

Legislators from areas that would have to send their money to others resist doing so, which forces greater reliance on local property taxes.

Here in South Kitsap, a property tax rate of $1 per $1,000 would collect about $625 per student. In contrast, $1 per $1,000 imposed statewide would collect about $867 per student.

A similar difference occurs in state sales tax collections. Some areas pay more to the state than others, and the state distributes the tax revenue based on enrollment.

Absent a hard push on behalf of districts that cannot afford to make up the deficit between state funding and actual costs of adequate schools, the state’s share of the total shrinks.

With local levies passing in almost all cases, the pressure on the state that now exists would wane — until a great enough number of school districts raise their levies to the point that they cannot be passed even when only a majority vote is required.

In effect, this “simple majority” amendment would buy time for people who will not provide adequate state school funding for all children in this state.

Some districts will suffer until enough feel the pain that they go back into battle again.

The other aspect of the struggle involves the effort to rely less on property taxes for all government funding, not just for schools.

Beginning before the first world war, citizens of Washington worked to change the state’s tax system, since it relied almost entirely on property taxes with no constitutional limits on those taxes.

With the added pressure of the Great Depression, years of effort paid off with voter approval of Initiative 64 in 1932 to limit total property taxes to 2 percent of the value of property.

This limit became part of our constitution in 1944, and in 1972 the limit was lowered to 1 percent of property value.

Exceeding this 1 percent limit on total property taxes requires approval by 60 percent of those voting on the “excess levy” ballot measure, whether it is for a school district, the state or some other taxing district.

The state’s property tax is the “regular” property tax for support of the schools within the 1 percent limit, so any local school district levy approved by the voters is an excess levy.

Despite what is said by some supporters of the “simple majority” amendment, the 1 percent limit imposed in 1972 had nothing to do with the Great Depression nor anything to do with ignorance about the identity of the school district within which voters resided.

Voters in 1972 cut the regular property tax limit to half of what it had been, and they kept the 60 percent approval requirement to enforce this lower limit.

Maybe youngsters think laws from 1972 are obsolete holdovers from a distant past, but an effective limit on property taxes is as necessary today as it was 35 years ago.

If voters decide to keep the limit on property taxes and the pressure on the state to fund our common schools, the “simple majority” amendment will be rejected; but how many see it this way?

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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