Education plan faces uncertain fate

OLYMPIA A one-penny sales tax hike, proposed this week by education
supporters, would raise $1billion a year for preschool programs, public schools and colleges.

The biggest question about the proposal, however, is the one no one can answer:
Will voters agree to a billion-dollar tax hike?

They should, Gov. Gary Locke said Thursday.

“Better education benefits everyone,” he said. The League of Education Voters’ proposal, he said, gives voters a chance to “take bold action to reap huge rewards.”

“Are we satisfied with the mediocre education system that we have?” the
governor said.

Some lawmakers predict that voters will balk.

“Didn’t they look and see what happened in Oregon?” said Rep. Brad Benson, R-
Spokane, referring to Oregon voters’ overwhelming rejection Tuesday of a
proposed $800 million tax hike that included school funding. “I don’t see it as realistic.”

Former House Speaker Clyde Ballard, also a Republican, called the proposal
“irresponsible and reckless.”

Ballard is a national board member of Citizens for a Sound Economy, which
fought the Oregon tax increase. The group vowed to do the same here.

The proposal would raise the sales tax in most of Spokane County to more than 9 cents on the dollar and in Seattle to nearly a dime.

At a crowded press conference in the governor’s office Thursday, the Seattle-
based League of Education Voters detailed its plan. The $1billion a year would be divided up as follows:

$100 million for early education, including 10,000 new spots for low-income kids at preschools.

$500 million for kindergarten through high school, including teacher training, more money to shrink class sizes, and more help for poor and struggling students.

$400 million for higher education, including 25,000 more spots for students, starting in 2008, plus 7,000 more in high-demand fields. That $400 million would also double state “Promise Scholarships” targeted at middle-class families and
include $100million for university research.

“A quality education is a universal right,” the governor said. “Our children deserve nothing less, and we can provide them with nothing more important. Here’s a chance for Washington state to send its students to the head of the class.”

Washington State University Regent Bill Marler said he was surprised that
recent polls showed as much support as they did. Voters are particularly
supportive, he said, when told that the League proposal sets up a firewall
around the money, so it can’t be drained off for other state budget needs.

“Anytime you ask people to raise their taxes it’s going to be hard,” he said.
“But voters have got to look at this and realize the time has come.”

A baby-boom echo of more than 30,000 new college students is on its way in
coming years, he said, and the state has to make room for them. Already, he
said, WSU is turning away some students with 3.5 grade-point averages.

Pollster Stuart Elway, citing a December survey he conducted, said 56 percent of the people polled said they’re inclined to vote yes on a 1-cent sales tax hike. Some 41 percent said they’re inclined to vote no.

“It’s a horse race,” Elway said. “People are open to the discussion. It’s a new idea. It will have to boil for a while.”

It’s likely to boil for the next nine months, until the November election.
Locke could ask lawmakers to approve the proposal as a referendum, which would send it to voters for a thumbs-up or down.

Key lawmakers say that’s unlikely.

“The chance of it passing the Legislature is pretty slim,” said House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. He’s an enthusiastic supporter, but pointed out that the Legislature couldn’t even pass a two-tenths of a cent sales tax hike last year. “I’m trying to be realistic about what can be done,” Chopp said.

That means that the League of Education Voters will have to put the measure on
the ballot itself, by gathering more than 200,000 voter signatures. The group is ready to do that, said executive director Mark Usdane.

Critics also point to the regressive nature of the sales tax, which tends to
cost the poor a higher percentage of their income than the rich.

“Weren’t the Democrats just saying how much they loathe the regressive tax
system we have?” Benson said.

Marler agreed that the sales tax is regressive, but said the money would help pay for scholarships, other financial aid, and education to help lift kids from poverty.

Plus, he said, the simple one-penny proposal had the most voter support of
several alternatives.

“We polled an income tax, we polled all kinds of taxes,” he said. “This seemed
fairer to voters.”

This sidebar appeared with the story:

THE NUMBERS

What it would cost

People earning $30,000 to $40,000 a year would pay an estimated $150 more a
year in sales taxes.

People making $50,000 to $60,000 a year would pay $180 more.

People earning more than $130,000 a year would pay roughly $480 more a year.

– Source: League of Education Voters

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