Petition calls for taxing Olympia’s wealthiest households to create college fund

Ray Guerra collects signatures for the Opportunity for Olympia campaign on April 7 at the Olympia Farmers Market.
Ray Guerra collects signatures for the Opportunity for Olympia campaign on April 7 at the Olympia Farmers Market. The Olympian

A petition is circulating for a new ordinance that would tax Olympia’s wealthiest households to generate college tuition money for all local high school graduates.

Backed by a volunteer group called Opportunity for Olympia, the proposal calls for creating a 1.5 percent tax on household income in excess of $200,000. Organizers estimate about 750 households in Olympia city limits would be subject to the tax, which would raise about $2.5 million a year.

The petition needs 4,702 valid signatures by June 16 to qualify for the November general election ballot. If the law passes, every public high school graduate and GED recipient living inside Olympia’s boundaries would be eligible for money to pay for the first year of tuition at any community college, or an equivalent amount can be applied to tuition at any public university in Washington.

The Seattle-based Economic Opportunity Institute has provided the blueprint for Opportunity for Olympia.

“Obviously the state has not done a lot in terms of reducing tuition,” said John Burbank, executive director of the institute. “This is a way for at least Olympia to sort of lead the way as to how this can be done.”

Burbank said Olympia’s measure would be the first of its kind in the state. Olympia voters are passionate about education, he said, pointing to the decisive votes for a school district construction bond (72 percent) and operations levy (76 percent) in the February special election.

The proposed tax could help increase the number of Olympia students who continue their education past high school, Burbank said. In 2012, about 77 percent of Olympia public high school graduates continued on to college, according to the institute.

“We think a lot of students don’t go to college because of the cost of tuition,” Burbank said. “It’s not just a financial barrier. It’s a psychological barrier.”

Volunteer coordinator Ray Guerra has been gathering signatures from local voters. Guerra, who ran unsuccessfully for Olympia City Council in 2015, said that three rounds of informal polling have shown about “70 percent favorability” for the tax.

The goal is to collect at least 8,000 signatures to ensure the measure will qualify for the November election. Guerra said volunteers gathered about 1,500 signatures on March 26, Democratic caucus day in Thurston County.

In the bigger picture, organizers hope the proposal will present a formidable chink in opposition to a state income tax, and help reform a regressive tax system.

“If we can get this on the ballot,” Guerra said, “it’s going to go through.”

Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby said city officials were not consulted about the petition or the proposed ordinance. At this time, she wants the public and city officials to have access to as much information about the proposal as possible.

Selby said she believes the proposal will attract a court challenge regarding the tax’s legality.

“This is uncharted territory,” Selby told The Olympian. “This is going to be a conversation across the state that’s going to put Olympia in the spotlight.”

To that end, the Olympia City Council will hold a public study session on the proposal at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 601 Fourth Ave. E. University of Washington law professor Hugh Spitzer will provide insight to the council, Selby said.

City attorney Mark Barber confirmed that if enough valid signatures are gathered, the proposal would go before the city council as an ordinance. The council could then enact the ordinance as is or put it on the ballot for voters.

Barber agreed with Selby it is possible that the ordinance, if it passes, could face a legal challenge.