Washington State Does the Math On Tax Limitation and Education

Two competing ballot initiatives prompt concern over schools' future

WITH just a few days left before Nov. 2 elections, voters in Washington State are being bombarded with dire warnings about two tax-limitation measures on the ballot.

* Opponents say that either measure would put the state government in a straitjacket and harm the quality of education, health care, and public safety.

* Boosters say the initiatives are needed to force government to live within the state's means. Lawmakers in Olympia passed almost $1 billion in new taxes earlier this year at a time when two of the state's key industries - aerospace and timber - are in trouble and shedding jobs.

A poll earlier this month in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer found about half the electorate likely to support each initiative, with just over a third of voters leaning against the measures. The outcome remains uncertain.

``I think it's going to be very close on both of these measures,'' says David Olson, a University of Washington political scientist.

The initiatives tackle the tax-limitation issue in different ways and would not necessarily be compatible if both passed.

I-601 caps state spending, tying growth to the rise in population and inflation, and requires voter approval for tax changes.

I-602 repeals 1993 tax and fee increases, caps state revenue growth by linking it to the rise in personal incomes, and requires a legislative ``supermajority'' of 60 percent to approve tax changes.

The Washington Research Council, a nonpartisan group, notes that while the two measures share the common ground of making it harder to raise taxes, they differ in their philosophies: 601 tries to gauge a ``normal'' increase in the cost of government, while 602 ensures that government doesn't grow faster than the economy.

If voters approve both measures, the result will be ``a lot of uncertainty'' that the state supreme court might have to unravel, Olson says. The most obvious dilemma will be whether new taxes must be approved by a legislative supermajority, or voters, or both.

Professor Olson says that if only one initiative passes it may be 601, which has the backing of key Republican lawmakers here.

It also is possible that both measures will be defeated next week, he says, noting Oregon and California are now struggling to correct the ``bloodletting'' of their earlier tax revolts.

Montana, however, appears poised to roll back taxes that its Legislature tried to pass earlier this year, says Scott Mackey of the National Conference of State Legislatures. A defeat in Washington would be a major blow to the current tax-limitation movement.

For opponents of the Washington initiatives, education is the hot-button issue. Public schools here are funded largely by state revenue. This money plus higher education funding accounts for about 60 percent of the budget.

The issue is a potent one, hammered at by Gov. Mike Lowry (D), who says a well-schooled work force is the key to the state's future. William Gates, founder of Microsoft Corporation, frets that the anti-tax measures will hurt the University of Washington, the region's academic giant.

Many voters in the state, however, are angry at the Legislature and argue that there is plenty of fat in the state budget. ``Instead of agreeing to identify and cut waste, lawmakers opposing the initiatives have stated they will cut vital services first,'' says Bob Williams, president of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a conservative research organization in Olympia.

Advocates for 602 say much of the budget gap caused by the tax and fee rollback could be resolved by bringing benefits of state employees into line with those in the private sector, privatizing some state services, and reforming welfare.

But when the state budget got tight in the 1981 recession, higher education got hit hard, says Norm Arkans, a spokesman for the University of Washington.

``Nobody knows for sure what the Legislature will do if 602 passes,'' says James Christiansen, vice chancellor for the three-campus Seattle Community College.

Mr. Arkans says the university would lose $73 million of the $680 million it receives during the state's two-year budget cycle. This would likely involve cutting student enrollment by 2,000 or more from 30,000 now and cutting 700 staff.

Seattle Community College might have to drop a quarter of its 12,000 students, Mr. Christiansen says. The college has already been turning away applicants for three or four years due to rising demand, he says.

Olson predicts higher education would get hit particularly hard under 602, while elementary schools would be protected somewhat by their constitutional mandate to provide basic education.

``Either one [of the initiatives] will hurt us,'' says Joan Yoshitomi of the Seattle Public Schools. While 602 could have an immediate impact, she says 601's impact would be just as great in the long term, since it ties state spending to population and inflation growth. School-age populations are expected to grow faster than the overall state rate.

Ironically, voters here appear likely to approve another ballot initiative that moves in the opposite direction: mandatory prison sentencing for repeat violent offenders. That measure, I-593, would to add to an already burgeoning state corrections budget.

A final twist for puzzled voters to ponder: The state already has a revenue cap passed on the ballot in 1979. The measure, which links taxes to personal income growth, was enacted in a period of such rapid economic growth that the caps resulting from its base year have never been reached.

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