In a matter of weeks, voters in Washington’s 45th Legislative District will be deciding which political party controls the state Senate in 2018.
By electing Democratic candidate Manka Dhingra, voters in the 45th could oust Republicans from power and put the Senate under Democratic management for the first five in five years. On the other hand, by electing Republican candidate Jinyoung Lee Englund, voters in the 45th could preserve the status quo.
Given the huge implications of the contest, many civic organizations have been inviting Dhingra and Englund to appear at candidate forums to introduce themselves to voters and answer questions. Both have become accustomed to fielding questions about the McCleary case, traffic congestion, and other hot topics, as the organizers of each forum have tended to cover the same ground.
Refreshingly, the Northshore PTSA decided — in addition to asking boilerplate questions about McCleary — to inquire if the candidates agree that we should lower the threshold for passage of school bonds to a simple majority.
This a worthy idea that has been discussed in the Legislature, but hasn’t yet been referred to voters for their consideration as a constitutional amendment.
The candidates’ answers could hardly have been more different. Here is a transcript of the Northshore PTSA’s question and the candidates’ responses to it:
QUESTION FROM NORTHSHORE PTSA: Right now, to pass a bond to raise funds to build schools, a local bond ballot measure must have sixty percent plus one of the vote. Do you support changing the law [actually, the Washington State Constitution] so that a simple majority of the voters — fifty percent plus one — can pass a bond?
DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE MANKA DHINGRA: Yes.
MODERATOR: You actually have twenty seconds.
MANKA DHINGRA: Oh. I’m good with that answer. You know? Well, it could go on. I refer you to my earlier answers about still having portables. You know, we worked hard at Einstein Elementary for two years to get enough money to build a playground, because we didn’t have the money… in Redmond, in one of these affluent areas, so that our kids could have a playground.
REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE JINYOUNG LEE ENGLUND: I oppose it, because when we build new buildings, I think we need to do our due diligence and educating the public in committing to what amounts to a second mortgage for families that live in these school districts. I think that — again, before we go to people and say we need more money — that whoever is asking for that needs to do their due diligence in providing a comprehensive plan so that the families that are having to pay it can be equipped to do that.
As noted by the PTSA, in order to construct new buildings and facilities, school districts throughout Washington State need to be able to borrow money. Before issuing bonds, districts need to obtain permission from voters at an election. Presently, the threshold for bond passage is three-fifths of at least forty percent of the registered voters in a school district — the so-called sixty/forty rule.
If minimum turnout is below forty percent, the bond fails. If turnout is sufficient but fewer than sixty percent (three fifths) of voters vote aye, the bond still fails… even if it gets 59.9% of the vote, which would ordinarily be considered a lopsided result.
As we’ve noted many times here on the Cascadia Advocate, when the threshold to pass a ballot measure or bill is greater than fifty percent, control over the outcome ends up being in the hands of a few as opposed to the many.
As recently as ten years ago, the threshold to pass a school levy was the same as a bond. But in the 2007 legislative session, the House and Senate — both then controlled by Democrats — referred to the voters a constitutional amendment making the standard for passage of such levies a simple majority.
Voters approved the amendment in November 2007, and ever since, the many have been in control of the fate of school levies, instead of a few.
But the sixty/forty rule has remained in effect for bond measures. That has made financing the construction of badly needed new facilities in many school districts difficult. In many cases, a majority of voters have been supportive, but not the requisite supermajority currently required to authorize a bond issue.
Recognizing that such decisions ought to be made by majority vote, Democratic Representative Mia Gregersen in 2015 proposed a constitutional amendment (HJR 4210) to lower the threshold for passage of school bonds to a simple majority — providing the bond measures appeared before voters at a general election.
Republican Representative Dick Muri reintroduced the proposed amendment this year with Gregersen as a cosponsor. Fittingly, it was assigned the number “4204” — the same number given to the successful constitutional amendment permitting school levies to pass by a simple majority vote ten years ago.
None of these proposed amendments advanced beyond a public hearing.
But next year could be different. It all depends on what happens in the 45th.
If the Senate gets new management and a new member from the 45th who supports simple majorities to pass school bonds, prospects for referring an amendment to the voters to consider at the next general election would brighten. But if Republicans remain in power in the Senate, the likelihood of there being a debate and floor vote in both houses on the idea in 2018 will be pretty much nil.