Groups sue over wording of education tax initiative

The billion-dollar tax initiative designed to bolster public education in Washington has been stalled by a last-minute lawsuit.

Three anti-tax groups have challenged language in the title that describes the content of the initiative.

The suit was filed in Thurston County Superior Court on Monday — the last day such action could be taken.

The League of Education Voters initiative — I-844 — would raise the state’s sales tax by 1 percent.

The league hopes to create a trust fund that would improve K-12 education on many fronts, and add 32,000 enrollments in state colleges and increase financial aid.

League officials were angered by the suit, but remained confident they would get the measure on the Nov. 2 ballot. Supporters have to collect 250,000 valid signatures by July 2.

“It will slow down the movement by maybe as much as two weeks,” Mark Usdane, the league’s executive director, said of the suit.

The suit was filed by Citizens for a Sound Economy, Evergreen Freedom Foundation and Building Industry Association of Washington — a mix of national and state conservative organizations that routinely challenge taxes and government regulations.

The state Attorney General’s Office will respond in court to the suit as the agency that writes initiative language for the ballot.

In the suit, attorney Tim Ford argues that the statement declaring I-844’s subject as “dedicated funding for certain preschool, school and college educational purposes” was inadequate because it failed to mention that the measure is based on a tax increase.

“If you can tell the people here’s this magical initiative that will put all of this money into a dedicated account and say nothing about taxes in there … sure, they would be in favor of that,” said former state legislator Clyde Ballard, who is on the national board of Sound Economy.

Ballard said he opposes the sales tax increase and doesn’t trust lawmakers to use the money it would generate for improving public education.

Usdane said the initiative has “firewalls” that should keep the Legislature from using trust fund money on anything other than education. The initiative also establishes an oversight committee that will audit how the money is spent.

A hearing on the lawsuit is set for April 2, but the league has petitioned the judge in the case to hear arguments Friday.

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

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