Washington voters showed a conservative streak Tuesday, turning down tax increases for schools and rejecting ballot measures that would have expanded gambling and allowed charter schools.
Early returns also showed voters approving a new Top-Two primary election system and endorsing a measure that would require cleanup of radioactive wastes at Hanford before more waste could be stored there.
For the third time in a decade, Washington voters were rejecting a measure that would have permitted charter schools.
Referendum 55 – a measure that gave voters a chance to decide the fate of a legislative bill passed in 2003 allowing charter schools – was failing by a large margin Tuesday night.
“We really hope that the third time’s the charm,” said Jennifer Lindenauer, communications director for Protect Our Public Schools, the campaign against Referendum 55. “Voters get it. Charter schools are not the right direction.”
Charter schools are privately run schools that receive public funding.
Because charter schools are privately run, opponents claim accountability and oversight suffer. But proponents have said charter schools could make gains with students who haven’t performed well in traditional classrooms, such as the 30 percent of Washington students who drop out of high school.
“We intend to hold the current system accountable for solving the dropout crisis,” said Jim Spady, president of the Washington Charter School Resource Center. “If the regular system isn’t able to solve it (the dropout rate), we’ll be back.”
Delfina Bright, a 42-year-old Lacey parent, voted in favor of charter schools because she thinks they could offer smaller classes for families who can’t afford private school tuition.
“I think it would be awesome,” she said of allowing charter schools. “The only reason my daughter is not in a private school is because we can’t afford it.”
Patti Lehman, a 45-year-old Olympia preschool teacher, said she voted against charter schools because she fears the measure would drain funding from existing public schools.
“There’s a better way” of improving public education, Lehman said. “We should be working within the system hiring competent and qualified people.”
State voters sent a message to the federal government Tuesday about the nuclear waste mess at Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
By a wide margin, voters approved Initiative 297, which calls for the federal Department of Energy to clean up radioactive and hazardous waste at Hanford before sending new shipments of low-level radioactive waste and mixed wastes to Hanford from other states.
“We’re very pleased,” said Bob Cooper, spokesman for the “Yes on 297” campaign. “It’s a very clear statement that the people of Washington want Hanford cleaned up before more waste is dumped there.”
Opponents of the initiative, which included Tri-Cities business leaders and the Association of Washington Business but no organized campaign, said the initiative will have unintended consequences and is legally flawed.
If this state blocks waste disposal at Hanford, other states could follow suit and prevent Hanford from shipping out high-level radioactive waste, spent nuclear fuel rods and plutonium as part of the cleanup there, opponents said.
“There’s no question in my mind the initiative will be challenged in court,” said Wanda Munn, a Tri-Cities resident and initiative critic.
“We’re pretty confident it will withstand a court challenge,” Cooper said.
The reason: Hanford is a contaminated site while the proposed sites in Nevada and New Mexico – states slated to receive Hanford waste – are nuclear waste repositories.
Voters were giving strong approval to Initiative 872, the proposal to create a new primary election system.
Dubbed the “Top Two,” it lets voters pick among candidates from any political party in the primary, but only the top two vote-getters move to the November general election ballot, even if they are from the same party.
Voter anger over a new partisan-ballot system used in September helped propel I-872, according to Terry Hunt, president of the 45,000-member Washington State Grange, which spent nearly $700,000 to sponsor it.
“I think the people have spoken,” Hunt said. “I think it’s a great day for the voters. … I think they’ve taken the politics back into their hands and are keeping it” from the political parties.
The grange sponsored a previous citizen initiative effort in 1935 that created the state’s original blanket primary, which federal courts struck down as illegal last year. The Legislature adopted the Top Two as the replacement, but Gov. Gary Locke vetoed it, leaving a Montana-style system that required voters to choose a single-party ballot to cast votes in partisan races.
I-892 opponents included major and minor political parties, as well as the League of Women Voters. They argued that minor parties will become marginalized under the Top Two because many candidates will never appear on the November ballot, when most people vote.
“We’ve only had about $50,000 to work with,” No on I-872 campaign manager Richard Kelley said. “With a little more time and resources to explain this, I think we would be winning tonight.”
Kelley said legal challenges by the state’s political parties are possible.
A measure to raise Washington sales tax by 1 cent per dollar was failing by a large margin Tuesday night.
Initiative 884 would have increased the state’s sales tax to raise an additional $1 billion annually for the state’s preschool, kindergarten through grade 12, and higher education systems.
Opponents have said the increased tax would dampen an already sagging Washington economy and eliminate some 10,000 jobs statewide.
“It would be too devastating,” said Jamie Daniels, state director of Citizens for a Sound Economy and a Lacey resident. “People are just not ready to do that right now. We want to get our jobs back and get people back to work.”
Proponents said the money is needed to help teachers, students and schools work to meet academic standards set by state and federal law.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson said she was disappointed with the initiative’s apparent failure, saying the results mean it will be important for the Legislature to allocate the necessary funds to schools.
“We have to get the resources that we need,” she said. “If it’s not through sales tax, we have to find another way.”
Steven Benge, 27, of Olympia said he voted against I-884 because he thinks it would make the sales tax too high. Instead, he thinks property taxes should be higher to fund public schools.
“I can’t afford to pay any more sales tax,” said Benge, who has an infant daughter born last week. “That would be reason enough for me to go down to Oregon to buy a computer or a bike.”
Noryany Muhamad, 22, of Lacey said she voted for I-884 because she thinks the measure would translate into better public schools. “I think it would be good for schools to have smaller classes and a greater focus on students.”
Voters were strongly rejecting Initiative 892 to expand the use of video slot machines in Washington, shooting down sponsor Tim Eyman’s plan for reducing state property taxes.
I-892 would have authorized 18,225 video slot machines in non-tribal bars, restaurants and bowling alleys statewide, matching the number allowed under tribal compacts in Indian-run casinos. Most of the tax proceeds would have gone to property tax relief.
“I think voters rejected gambling in neighborhoods,” I-892 campaign spokeswoman Laura McClintock said. “That’s what this initiative would do. And they understood that.”
“I think this also shows you can’t wrap up a tax cut in something voters don’t want and hire Tim Eyman to front it for you,” McClintock added.
In an email Tuesday night, Eyman didn’t concede the issue. “I will work extremely hard over the next few weeks and months, attempting to draft an initiative that maintains I-892’s positive aspects while addressing the voters’ concerns,” he wrote.
The hard-fought campaign triggered a record $6 million in opposition fundraising from tribes. With another $1 million spent by Eyman’s card room backers, I-892 was poised to be the most expensive ballot measure in state history.
“I do think it’s trashy to have gambling machines all over the place, so I voted against it,” said Bart Gordon, a mechanic and owner of a car-sales lot west of Olympia.
But Angela Fagerstrom, a college student and second-time voter who had turned out mainly to vote for Democrat John Kerry for president, said she supported I-892 “to kind of even out the playing field with who has slot machines.”
Fagerstrom said she only decided to vote for I-892 after learning that it would have allowed slots only in places that already allow gambling.