Initiative to increase sales tax awaits OK

Supporters of Initiative 884, dubbed the “education initiative,” have turned in an estimated 260,000 signatures to the Secretary of State’s office on Friday to get the initiative to the voters in November. The Secretary of State’s office must verify the signatures. The measure needs 198,000 signatures to make the ballot.

The initiative proposes a 1 percent hike in the state sales tax — which would increase it from 7.5 percent to 8.5 percent — to specifically fund education. The additional sales tax would raise about $930 million in 2005 by a state Department of Revenue projection, said George Scarola, the director of the campaign for the initiative.

Proponents of the initiative say if it is approved by voters, the sales tax would create a war chest for education that would provide 16,000 high-quality preschools for low income children, create smaller class sizes, invest in teacher pay and training for enrollment in community and technical colleges and provide scholarship money for students, Scarola said.

“(The campaign) was developed by a group of citizens and is citizen funded,” Scarola said. “We’ve been working with educators for the last couple of years and tracking what the needs are, and we are working with parents who have been active in schools for more than a decade.”

Locally, the initiative would fund about 500 more students at Olympic College and the staff necessary to support them, Scarola said.

The same group of citizens also brought Initiative 732 to the state, which guaranteed cost of living allowance raises for school employees in 2000. For the first two years, the initiative was carried out. In 2003, the state legislature suspended it.

In the state of Washington, voter-passed initiatives go into effect for two years before the legislature can change them.

The citizens learned from their mistake

and incorporated heavy language into the 36-page I-884 to prevent the legislature from tapping into the 1 percent sales tax fund if the initiative gains voter approval in November.

“We’ve put in some tougher provisions,” Scarola said. “The legislature can’t use the money for anything else without changing the law.”

If it passes, the legislature would have to get a two-thirds vote to change it or to use the funds for other purposes.

In addition, I-884 has a built-in protection device, he said. The initiative includes a citizen oversight committee that will watch over the funds. The committee will include the state auditor as a non-voting member, who will certify that the legislature uses the 1 percent sales tax hike as it is intended to be used.

The oversight committee is a move to remind the legislature that it would not be a politically popular decision to tamper with the funds, he said.

“If the legislature wants to change anything it will have to do so in the face of the oversight committee,” Scarola said. “We think we have made it politically nearly impossible to use this money in any way that is not intended.”

Opponents of the initiative say the built-in protections are not enough because the legislature always has the ability to change it with a two-thirds vote.

“I-884 will not help students in our state achieve an excellent education because it fails to address the fundamental reforms necessary to fix what has become an outdated, over-burdened, monopolistic education delivery system,” Lynn Harsh and Marsha Richards wrote on the Evergreen Freedom Foundation’s Web site.

Harsh is the foundation’s executive director and senior education analyst and Richards is the director of the foundation’s Education Reform Center.

“The initiative does not turn the focus back to students and their families and it does not provide excellent teachers with the professional freedom and rewards they deserve.”

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