Three ballot initiatives debated at forum

A penny sales tax increase would help reverse a decade of underfunding public education but would sink a floundering economy with more taxation.

Opponents and supporters of Initiative 884 duked it out before a small audience gathered at the Cowlitz PUD building Wednesday. That sales tax initiative and two others that will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot were up for debate at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Cowlitz County and The Daily News.

In a point, counter-point debate, supporters and opponents discussed I-884, Initiative 872, which would create a top-two primary election system, and Referendum 55, which would authorize charter public schools.

Initiative 884

The state has “loaded up the demands” for education but hasn’t provided the necessary funding, said George Scarola, the campaign director for I-884, which would increase sales tax by a penny per dollar for education funding.

“We as a state are facing a major challenge and a major opportunity. We have for 10 years under-funded education, we’ve under-invested and we’ve fallen behind,” Scarola said.

The initiative would help fund early childhood education, smaller class sizes and scholarships for high education, creating a more educated workforce and a “vibrant” economy, Scarola asserted.

That extra penny adds up to $1 billion a year, taxing already overburdened families without a guarantee the money will be spent wisely, rebutted Jamie Daniels, a representative from the League of Freedom Voters.

“This will have a devastating effect on our economy,” Daniels said, adding that Oregon, Idaho and the Internet already draw shoppers looking to avoid Washington’s sales tax.

The Initiative does not guarantee that the Legislature wouldn’t divert the money for other uses, she said.

“I-884 is a promise to the voters that cannot and will not be kept,” she said. “If you can’t trust the Legislature to fund education, you can’t trust the Legislature to leave it alone.”

Referendum 55

Charter schools don’t have a proven track record and will syphon money from public schools, said Ray Prynne, the president of the Longview Education Association, the teachers’ union.

Authorized non-profit organizations would receive public funds to operate charter schools under contracts with local education boards.

“We need to adequately fund the system we have, not create another one,” Prynne said.

Voters have rejected charter schools twice in the last eight years, he said, and the Legislature should listen to voters, not “turn their back on funding.”

This is not the same initiative that voters rejected in the past, rebutted Brad Jurkovich, spokesman for the Approve Referendum 55 campaign.

In the face of dismal dropout rates, the system needs other options, he said. Charter schools would provide flexibility to adjust curriculum to help students who otherwise may leave, he said.

Dollars follow the student, so funding is a separate issue, he said.

“We are proud of our school districts, this is a way to add to it,” Jurkovich said. “If we are frozen by not trying something new, that’s the status quo.”

Initiative 872

The 2004 primary election used an “open” primary system that limited voters to choosing candidates from one party, rankling Washington voters who have been used to a “blanket” primary that allows crossover voting.

The open primary replaced the former blanket primary, which the state Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional.

If approved, I-872 would replace the open primary with a top-two system, in which the top two vote-getters advance, regardless of party.

The top-two system would allow voters to cross party lines, said Don Whiting, representative from Citizens Preserving Voters Choice and spokesman for the Washington State Grange, which is spearheading the initiative.

“Voters get to decide who gets on the ballot and who gets elected,” he said.

On the other hand, the initiative could cause two candidates from the same party to advance to the general election, limiting choices, and would wash out minor party candidates, said Richard Shepard, an attorney and spokesman for Protect General Election Choice.

“I can’t imagine anything worse for Washington than I-872,” Shepard said.

Measure 884: Dedicates money for education improvements with a one penny on the dollar increase in sales tax.

Referendum 55: Would authorize charter public schools. Authorized non-profit organizations would get public funds to operate alternative schools under contracts with local education boards.

Measure 872: Would allow voters to choose from all candidates in primary elections.