Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Compexity Behind Simple Majority

I’m a long-time supporter of EHJR 4204, the proposed change to the Washington State Constitution to allow school levies to be approved by a simple majority (50%+1) rather than the super-majority (60%) required today . There is no shortage of well-written arguments in favor of 4204, but they basically boil down to these two:

  1. Schools are extremely important and they need more funding.
  2. The current constitutional system is archaic and unfair. The levy system was invented in the 1940s and a lot has changed since then. You can approve a jail with 50%, but not schools? A President or Governor can be elected by a mere 50% (or sometimes less), so it's ridiculous to put our children's future hostage to a higher bar.

These arguments are pretty straight-forward, so why would anyone oppose the measure, especially when it's so vital to children? And why did it take half a century to finally propose ditching the current, unjust system?

The Voters Guide official statement against 4204 just rants about high taxes, saying (I'm paraphrasing) even though we of course support education, you should reject this on the basic principle that higher taxes are never good.

Here are some much better arguments against the measure:

  • More than 98% of all levies pass anyway, so what's the problem? 33 out of 226 levies in 2006 passed the first time, and only 4 failed the second time (according to the pro-4204 campaign web site). I'm not sure: has Mercer Island, for example, ever failed to get levy funds?
  • Levies often fail for good reasons. Who decides how much to raise in a levy, and how to spend it? School board elections everywhere are notoriously uncompetitive. Mercer Island's currently open seats are all uncontested. If the public's not watching, a tiny minority can put whatever they like on that levy and that 60% approval is often the only thing holding them back. For example:
    • Bainbridge Island tried to use their levy to pay for a laptop for each child in the district (according to a caller on last Wednesday's KUOW Community Forum podcast). Many voters thought it was a wasteful use of tax-payer money, particularly in an affluent community where parents could afford this with their own money.
    • Name something controversial in your community: Intelligent Design textbooks? Immigration? PEAK? What stops the levy committee from putting their pet project into your taxes? Answer: the fear of igniting an organized backlash that threatens that 60% majority.
  • Renters benefit from schools too, and they should pay their fair share. Why force property owners to bear the burden of schools alone, particularly in a community with a large percentage of home-owning seniors living on fixed incomes?
  • Schools don't fail for lack of money. Corrected for inflation, spending per student has tripled since 1960. Forcing levy backers to get 60% approval also forces them to get real community sponsorship of the schools -- which is often at least as important as the money itself.

As I said, I'm a big supporter of 4204, and I want you to support it as well. But you can't be a good advocate without understanding and refuting the counter-arguments. Can you ?

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