Bill to ease 60% school votes fails

A bill that would have made it easier to pass school levies at the polls was defeated in the Washington State House of Representatives by just one vote a week ago.

The bill, HRJ 4219, would have lifted the requirement of a supermajority, or 60 percent voter approval, for excess maintenance and operation levies and bonds issues for schools. The 65 votes it did get in the House were not enough to send the bill to the Senate -- on a constitutional amendment, 66 votes are needed.

Rep. Barry Sehlin, R-Oak Harbor, was one representative who voted against the bill, which would have required an amendment to the state constitution. While he said he knows the bill was "very popular" among some voters in the Oak Harbor School District, Sehlin defended his choice and offered an explanation on Friday.

"When it came time to cast my vote I could not support this major change to our constitution," Sehlin wrote in a press release following the vote.

Sehlin said that the issue doesn't appear to be a widespread statewide problem, since only four of 275 school district levies failed in 2001.

Also voting against the bill was Langley's Rep. Kelly Barlean. He said this week that he could not see mucking around with the constitution on an issue that does not seem to be a problem.

"To me, amending the constitution is a radical thing," he said. "It didn't rise to that standard in my mind."

Sehlin did, however, vote for an amendment to the proposed legislation that would have made it easier to pass maintenance and operation levies, but it was defeated. The amendment that would have removed the 60 percent requirement for maintenance and operation levies, but would have kept that standard in place for bond votes. He blamed the measure's failure on legislators who wanted simple majority approval for any measure proposed by a school district.

Sehlin said he based his decision on what he perceives to be the best interest of taxpayers.

"By their nature, property taxes can have a devastating effect on a small minority of property owners," he wrote in his press release.

He said he believes a higher standard should be required when placing a "damaging burden on a financially vulnerable minority."

Additionally, Sehlin said that the 60 percent required for passage of school levies also protects the majority from an "unacceptable burden." Referring to the Washington State Constitution, Sehlin noted a provision that any requires any levy which causes the total property tax millage rate to exceed $10 per $1,000 of property valuation must be approved by a 60 percent majority. The millage in Island County is more than $10, except in Langley.

The 60-percent requirement applies to all property tax increase proposals that exceed this millage rate, not just to schools, he added.

Oak Harbor proponents of the legislation Lynn Goebel and Joe Mosolino testified before the state House of Representatives earlier this month, arguing that school districts, and therefore children, are suffering because of the supermajority requirement.

One school measure that did fail was an Oak Harbor schools bond issue that would have gone toward the sports facilities at Oak Harbor High School. The bond received 57 percent voter approval last March.

Record editor Matt Johnson contributed to this story.

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