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Sales tax-for-schools measure I-884 headed for the ballot

BY JAKE ELLISON
07/03/2004
by JAKE ELLISON on 7/3/04.

Jubilant supporters of Initiative 884 crowded onto a yellow school bus in Seattle yesterday and headed to Olympia, where they turned in petitions bearing more than 327,000 signatures -- nearly double the number needed to get the measure on the November ballot.

Proponents were taking no chances that the measure aiming to increase the sales tax and raise a billion dollars a year for public education would be left out of the fall elections.

Citizens for the Education Trust Fund, an offshoot of the League of Education Voters that developed the plan and failed to get it through the Legislature last year, spent more than $200,000 for paid signature gatherers and deployed a volunteer force of thousands.

"We wanted to make sure we were going to be on the ballot no matter what," said Natalie Reber, spokeswoman for the initiative effort.

While the signatures will not be validated until mid-August, the Secretary of State's Office said the signatures filed for I-884 are the fourth highest for an initiative in Washington history.

Backers of I-884 are also doing well on the money front. They had raised more than $430,000 in contributions by March 31, making it the richest initiative campaign so far this year, according to state records.

If approved in November, I-884 would raise the state sales tax 1 cent per dollar, to 7.5 percent. That increase would put some regional sales taxes over 9 percent. In Seattle and other King County cities, the tax bite would jump to 9.8 percent.

Money raised by the measure would increase preschool access by 16,000, reduce K-12 class sizes and raise teacher pay.

It would also expand the state's "promise" scholarship to the top 30 percent of high school graduates, increase college enrollments by 25,000, and add another 7,000 enrollments for high-demand fields, such as nursing and engineering.

Gearing up to fight the initiative is Clyde Ballard, a former House member and longtime legislator from East Wenatchee. Ballard's efforts are backed by Citizens for a Sound Economy, a national anti-tax organization with a chapter in Washington.

"If the public understands what this is, it will go down at the polls," Ballard said..

Ballard said he's been meeting with other Sound Economy members weekly to develop a strategy to fight the initiative, primarily arguing that the tax increase would "be a disaster" that would cost jobs and hurt the economy.

"We haven't raised a lot of money yet," he said. "We've been waiting for them to get on the ballot."

"We are worried," said Lisa Macfarlane, director of the League of Education Voters, as she stood over the white boxes full of petitions that student volunteers were preparing to load yesterday on the Olympia-bound bus.

"They trot around from state to state defeating mostly education initiatives," she said of Sound Economy.

In addition to a high number of signatures and the ability to tap deep pockets, I-884 has also netted a long list of early endorsements and the backing of top political leaders.

"Clearly, it's going to have a huge impact on education," Gov. Gary Locke said. "Every qualified student will be able to attend college or a university in Washington. We won't have to turn any of them away."

The Legislature has been able to add roughly 2,500 full-time positions a year in the state's higher-education system for the past 10 years, Locke said.

"But even if we continue at that pace for the next five, seven or eight years, it's not going to be enough to meet the growing numbers of kids graduating from high school," Locke said.

Sen. Don Carlson, R-Vancouver, said the tax will be hard on some communities, but Washington's public education system is in dire need.

"The problem is, what choice do we have?" Carlson said. "I'm personally in favor of it."

"It's a major investment in our future," added House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. "I believe it is the most significant step forward for education in a long time."

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P-I reporter Jake Ellison can be reached at 206-448-8346 or jakeellison@seattlepi.com

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