NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, October 11th, 2017

Manka Dhingra says yes to simple majorities for school bonds, Jinyoung Englund says no

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.

Very illu­mi­nat­ing.

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.

Sim­i­lar amend­ments were intro­duced by Sen­a­tor Mark Mul­let in the Sen­ate (SJR 8202) and Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Mon­i­ca Stonier in the House (HJR 4203) this year.

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.

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