SEATTLE – Voters turned down a penny-on-the-dollar increase in the state sales tax, rejecting an appeal for greater investment in public education.
With 92 percent of precincts reporting in Tuesday’s vote, Initiative 884 was opposed by 1,073,229 voters and supported by 686,748 – a 61 percent to 39 percent margin.
The proposal was designed to raise $1 billion a year to shore up public education funding from preschool to college level. But the increase in the state sales tax – from 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent – represented a 15.4 percent boost in a levy already viewed as burdensome for the poor.
“With the current high sales tax that we have, it was a tough leap for voters to make,” said Charles Hasse, president of the Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union that was a strong supporter of Initiative 884.
“I don’t think that translates to a lack of support for public schools,” Hasse said late Tuesday. “I think the coalition that worked on this is ready to try again to provide for students in Washington. People will continue to work on this.”
The League of Education Voters, a coalition of teachers, parents, business leaders and others that drove the campaign, had strong financial support. The campaign raised more than $3 million in cash donations – led by league co-president Nicolas J. Hanauer’s $815,000 and $150,000 each from Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Paccar family member James Pigott.
The opposition League of Freedom Voters took in less than $50,000, mostly from the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens for a Sound Economy.
Opponents were wary of the tax increase and feared the initiative would simply pump more money into faltering programs.
“We’re just elated that our hard work paid off,” said spokeswoman Jamie Daniels for the League of Freedom Voters.
Money generated by the tax increase was to go into a trust fund for three components of public education – preschool, K-12 and higher education.
Early education programs were to get about 10 percent of the money, to better prepare kids for school. The kindergarten through 12th grade level would have received 50 percent, and higher education would have received 40 percent, to create 32,000 more student slots and increase scholarship opportunities.
Among other things, the K-12 portion was aimed at paying for smaller class sizes and higher teacher pay, both approved by voters in 2000 but largely unfunded by the Legislature due to the economic slowdown.
Supporters stressed the importance of education in the job market and the state’s lackluster 65.7 percent on-time high-school graduation rate.
Opponents said the tax could undermine small business, especially in cities that border states with lower tax rates, and cost jobs.
They also questioned whether the “trust fund” could be protected, noting that the Legislature could simply vote to divert the money elsewhere.
Initiative backers were confident that broad public support for the education set-aside would protect the money from other interests.
The sales-tax increase for education was presented to the Legislature last winter by the league and lame-duck Democratic Gov. Gary Locke.
Lawmakers passed on the political hot potato, leaving the League of Education Voters to pitch it to voters.