School levies measure headed to ballot

The state Senate narrowly approved a "simple majority" measure for school levies Thursday, breaking a years-long deadlock over whether a 60 percent or 50 percent plus one majority of yes votes should be required.

The vote was 33-16 to approve Engrossed House Joint Resolution 4204 - exactly the supermajority needed to approve a proposed state constitutional amendment. Gov. Chris Gregoire requested the legislation, spokeswoman Holly Armstrong said.

The bill now heads to the November ballot, where a 50 percent plus one majority of voters could enact the change in the state Constitution.

"It was just the right time at least to let the people decide," said Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, who has championed a bill to let levies pass on a 50 percent plus one vote since joining the Legislature in 1993. "It's a great day for the children of Washington."

The vote was largely along party lines, with some exceptions. Democratic Sens. Jim Hargrove of Hoqiuam and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch voted against the measure, and Republican Sens. Cheryl Pflug of Maple Valley, Jim Clements of Selah and Dale Brandland of Bellingham voted for it.

"Let it go to a vote of the people and let them decide," Sen. Rosa Franklin, D-Tacoma, urged. Franklin said she is asked "over and over and over … why does it take only a simple majority to build prisons?"

Republicans such as Sen. Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said 97 percent of levies already pass, even at the 60 percent majority requirement level. The proposal does nothing for "property-poor" school districts at a time when the state is punting to voters on its duty to provide for basic education, Schoesler added.

The issue had been hot for years in school circles as a handful of school districts continued to fail operating levies at the 60 percent threshold. The Rochester School District in southwest Thurston County is among those that have faced challenges passing levies.

This year, Gov. Gregoire made it a priority to lower the threshold for approval, and Senate Democrats had made it a top session priority.

However, the majority Democrats failed to get the needed 33-vote supermajority when the issue came up for a vote earlier in the session. That changed with Pflug agreeing to support it and Democratic Sen. Ken Jacobsen dropping his objections.

Most of the Republican minority opposed it. Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, called it discrimination against the poorer districts, including one he identified near the Yakama tribal reservation, where there is little tax base.

The Senate's top budget writer, Democratic Sen. Margarita Prentice of Renton, said lawmakers have made pronouncements all year about improving the lives of children and needed to do that by passing the bill.

"Trust the voters to tell us," Prentice said. "If we're really going to be preparing our kids … we need to focus on what's right for them and what's right for our state."

Hargrove said the bill was flawed because it did not include a requirement to hold the elections in November and lacked a validation clause. That could turn voters against the amendment, he said.

"I hope next session, I'm not the one who says 'I told you so' because it didn't pass in November," Hargrove said.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, predicted victory at the polls. She said the most important thing is giving voters the chance to weigh in on the subject for the first time since the 60 percent requirement took effect in 1944.