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Class size initiative poses tough questions for legislators

The Legislative Building of the Washington State Capitol, Olympia.

April 7, 2015 - 5:49 pm

By John Stang

You can add Initiative 1351 to the long list of budget items that Washington’s House Democrats and Senate Republicans will fight about as they negotiate the state’s 2015-2017 operating budget.
The Senate Majority Coalition of 25 Republicans and one Democrat wants to send I-1351 back to the voters in November for a do-over. The House Democrats believe that approach is not feasible — and fraught with pitfalls.

Approved by state voters in November, I-1351 calls for dramatically reduced teacher-student ratios in public schools all the way from kindergarten through high school. Overall, it would add roughly $2 billion in education expenses in 2015-2017. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and legislators from both parties have cringed at that obligation, because no revenue source has been identified to raise the money.
The Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate’s budget proposals both want to mesh meeting I-1351’s obligations for Grades K-3 with their efforts to comply with a 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling that requires improvements in teacher-student ratios in those grades. Both sides, however, want to essentially put off I-1351’s obligations for Grades 4-12 in 2015-2017, because no money is available.

On Monday, the Senate voted 27-22 along caucus lines to send I-1351 back to the voters, hoping an official campaign against the $2 billion-per-biennium price tag will convince the voters to rescind the initiative. That bill is going to the House, where it will likely stall.
The only possible way that the House Democrats might agree to that approach is as part of some grand budget bargain at the end of the legislative session.
The Senate Republicans are putting their faith in a do-over vote this fall largely because last November’s passage of 1-1351 was so narrow. The measure passed by a 50.96 percent to 49.04 percent split — 1,052,519 to 1,012,958.

“It won by a whisker,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, on Tuesday. Schoesler also noted I-1351 faced no organized opposition in 2104.
While Gov. Jay Inslee privately opposed I-1351, he did not voice that opposition publicly until the votes were counted. Schoesler speculated that Inslee’s involvement in opposing I-1351 this year might lead to its revocation next November.

However, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina and one of the House Democratic budget writers, believes a November do-over of I-1351 is a bad idea. Lots of legal pitfalls exist trying to write a ballot measure that tackles linked but different issues — reducing teacher-student ratios in classrooms and deciding on $2 billion-per-biennium in extra spending, he said. Hunter said a possible referendum scenario could end up with the state’s voters clearly adding the $2 billion spending burden without saying where that money will come from.
On Feb. 17, the staff attorneys for the Senate Ways & Means Committee and House Appropriations Committee filed a joint memo outlining scenarios to tackle the I-1351 budget dilemma, both with and without bringing a referendum before voters.

The bottom lines in several scenarios boiled down to two choices. Legislators could struggle to get a two-thirds vote in each of the House and Senate to change I-1351. The advantage is that the legislators could tailor the changes in very specific ways. The drawback is it that it is extremely difficulty to get two-thirds of each chamber to agree on almost anything complicated.

Alternatively, the legislators could send the issue back to voters in November. But the attorneys’ various scenarios indicated that writing a legally valid measure will be tough. And the voters would essentially face a yes or no choice, because a ballot measure like this cannot legally give voters multiple choices and rankings in their order of preference. The advantage to this approach is that a bill to put I-1351 back before voters would require only simple majority votes in the House and Senate, along with the governor’s signature. There would still be potential drawbacks, perhaps most importantly the uncertainty of the election outcome.

Hunter prefers going with the two-thirds Senate-and-House approach. Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee and GOP caucus leader, said the Senate Republicans have not ruled out going the two-thirds majority route.

There’s one longshot that could conceivably rescue the legislators and Inslee from making decisions about how to proceed. The Seattle Times reported on March 31 that a man filed a legal challenge to I-1351’s passage on technical grounds in Kittitas County Superior Court, trying get the initiative overturned. The plaintiff is represented by a former state Supreme Court justice, Phil Talmadge.

Distributed by Crosscut Public Media

Click here for more 2015 Olympia coverage.

 

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