OLYMPIA Now that Gov. Gary Locke has handed the ball on education funding
reform to the Legislature, the best thing for lawmakers to do is punt.

It’s not that that’s the right thing to do. It’s just that that’s what’s going
to happen, so legislative leadership might as well do it now and give the
League of Education Voters as much time as possible to gather signatures and
money for an initiative to the people in November. A bid for a new billion-
dollar tax in an election year is DOA in a divided state Legislature.

Of course, it doesn’t take an election year to make some Republicans here shy
away from any tax increase, let alone a $1 billion one. Republican legislators
enunciate the caucus stance in both houses: It doesn’t make sense to pull $1
billion out of the private-sector economy now, even if it were to go to the
most important of public-sector needs.

There are Republican legislators who would oppose pulling that size chunk of
money out of the economy at any time. For the rest, it’s enough to point to
Locke’s hesitancy last year to vex the recovering but still fragile state
economy with a general tax increase to fund two education measures approved by
voters three years earlier.

Democrats may be more politically wary of a tax increase this year. A
legislative battle could put them in a tug of war between tax-weary
constituents and some of their staunchest supporters in the education
community. Democratic legislative enthusiasm for the League’s proposal will
likely be dampened by the Washington Education Association’s reluctance to
endorse it. The new money would reinstate increased funding for Initiative 728,
passed in November 2000 to help reduce class sizes. But it doesn’t reinstate
funding for Initiative 732, passed at the same time, providing teachers annual
cost-of-living raises. Without enthusiastic teacher support, it would be
difficult to get voter approval for any education measure, and downright
impossible to get help from the Democratic caucus.

Then too, with the Referendum 51 transportation-funding debacle a fresh and nasty memory, having one’s fingerprints on another big bucks tax-boost request is hardly seen as an election-year bonus. Of course, legislators could divine another R-51 political lesson. After voters soundly rejected that funding package, the Legislature voted in a 5-cent gas tax hike that stirred up hardly a ripple of public outcry.

Legislators could also take heart from some early polling that shows strong
voter support for a sales tax increase to fund education, polling strong enough to scare regional transportation planners away from the sales tax as a major funding source.

But any legislators tempted to advance the league’s proposal will more likely
take their lesson from – and be disheartened by – Oregon voters’ 60 percent rejection last week of a tax boost to fund, largely, education.

Whoever presents the education-funding plan here will face tough resistance
from the same group claiming a role in the Oregon tax defeat. Citizens for a
Sound Economy vows to fight any such increase in Washington. Former state
Republican House Speaker Clyde Ballard, speaking for the organization here
Thursday, said, “In my 20 years serving in the state Legislature, I have never
seen such an irresponsible and reckless proposal. If there was ever a time for
citizens to send a strong message, it is now.”

Citizens may question too what assurance they’ll have that, if approved, the new taxes will forever hit the intended target. Two years after an initiative passes, the Legislature can amend or even repeal it with a simple majority.

Meanwhile, for those who support this education proposal, every day squandered on hopeless legislative dithering is a day lost to the initiative campaign.

Democratic House Speaker Frank Chopp, Republican Sen. Steve Johnson, chair of
the Senate Education Committee, and Democrat Dave Quall, chair of the House
Education Committee, all say there’s little chance the Legislature will pass a referendum to the people.

So, if you can’t pass, punt – and get out of the way.

Thomas Shapley is an editorial writer and member of the P-I Editorial Board. E- mail: thomasshapley@seattlepi.com