One-penny sales tax increase: new hope for education?

SEATTLE — Supporters of Initiative 884 see their bid for a one-penny increase in the state’s 6.5 percent sales tax as a chance to recharge education in Washington state.

It’s not just about money, they hasten to add.

“Money matters, but only if it’s spent intelligently with a keen eye to where it’s needed most,” says Mark Usdane, executive director of the League of Education Voters backing I-884. “We’re every bit as much about reform as we are about money.”

Opponents are dubious about the benefits and fearful of the tax bite.

“At this point, money is not the solution. More of the same is not the solution,” says Marsha Richards of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

The penny increase is actually a 15.5 percent boost in the state sales tax that will impact families greatly around the state, Richards said.

Businesses in border communities, such as Spokane and Vancouver, will lose custom to their rivals in Idaho and Oregon, Richards predicted – a position also championed by the Washington, D.C.-based anti-tax group Freedomworks, which contends the levy could cost the state 10,000 jobs.

“It’s an absolutely destructive idea at this point in time for our economy,” said Clyde Ballard, the group’s state chairman and former state House speaker. “In the real world, a billion dollars in taxes hurts jobs.”

I-884 supporters say 88 percent of new jobs require post-high-school training or college. They cite the state’s 71 percent high-school graduation rate.

“What’s different and where the urgency comes from is that the whole economy has changed,” said Lisa Macfarlane, spokeswoman for the League of Education Voters. “The ability to earn a living wage with just a high-school diploma or less … is evaporating.”

The measure would create a trust fund for three areas of public education – pre-school, K-12 and higher education – with oversight by a board of citizens. It would provide raises for K-12 teachers, and is supported by the 76,000-member state teachers union, the Washington Education Association, and by both candidates for state schools chief.

“It’s a huge shot in the arm for educators at every level and for the future of Washington state,” said Terry Bergeson, two-term incumbent superintendent of public instruction.

The money also will help schools comply with government requirements, she said. “It doesn’t solve every problem but it gets us started.”

Judith Billings, her opponent and two-term predecessor, supports the measure as a first step, said spokeswoman Lauri Hennessey.

“It’s a Band-Aid,” Hennessey said. “It’s only the beginning of the money we need to get to the schools.”

Opponents question whether the “trust fund” could be protected, noting that the Legislature could simply vote to grab the money for other purposes.

Natalie Rieber, a spokeswoman for the League of Education Voters, said initiative backers hope a public vote to raise the tax would protect the money from other interests.

The state’s last two education initiatives – approved by voters in 2000 to reduce class size and provide cost-of-living raises for teachers – demanded large-scale spending but didn’t bring any money to pay for it.

When state revenues cratered after the tech bust and the Sept. 11 attacks, lawmakers sacrificed most of both initiatives to balance the budget.

The new initiative would pay for both initiatives, and it’s designed to channel money directly to local school districts, Rieber said.

The first income from the initiative, which would be collected between enactment of the initiative in April and the end of the fiscal year in June, should be available to districts by fall semester, she said.

The idea of a one-penny sales-tax increase for education was initially broached in the Legislature last session by the league and lame-duck Democratic Gov. Gary Locke. Lawmakers recoiled and passed the political hot potato to voters.

It has a chance of passage, says Democratic political consultant Cathy Allen – more so since voter-registration drives have swelled the electorate by about 100,000. A win will require big turnough from younger voters, Allen said.

“Any time you ask people for money the answer’s going to be, ‘I don’t want to pay more but I really want our schools to be better,” Allen said.

On the Internet:

League of Education Voters,

Evergreen Freedom Foundation,

Freedomworks/Citizens for a Sound Economy,