Voters Consider Sales Tax Increase for Schools

Washington’s tax-averse voters weighed in Tuesday on a sales tax increase pitched as a way to transform education from preschool through college.

The League of Education Voters, a coalition of teachers, parents, business leaders and others that drove the campaign, argued for a plan that would raise more than $1 billion annually and fill in funding gaps for future generations.

Opponents were wary of the tax bite and dubious about the benefits, fearing that the initiative would simply pump more money into faltering programs.

The initiative called for a 1 cent-increase in the state’s 6.5 percent sales tax, a 15.4 percent increase in a tax already viewed as burdensome on the poor.

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Money generated by the tax increase was earmarked for a trust fund benefiting three components of public education — preschool, K-12 and higher education.

Early education programs would get about 10 percent of the money, to better prepare kids for school; K-12 would get 50 percent; and higher education would receive 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, mandated by voters in 2000 but largely unfunded by the Legislature as lawmakers responded to a severe budget crunch.

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 broad public support for the education set-aside would protect the money from other interests.

The idea of a one-penny sales-tax increase for education was broached in the Legislature last session by the league and lame-duck Democratic Gov. Gary Locke. Lawmakers backed hastily away from the political hot potato, leaving the league to pitch it to voters.

The pro-initiative campaign collected 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.

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On the Net:

League of Education Voters: http://www.educationvoters.org

Freedomworks/Citizens for a Sound Economy: http://www.cse.org

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