Proponents of a new science building at Walla Walla High School are no doubt frustrated with last week’s defeat of the $10,2 million bond. After all a majority of voters — 52 percent — voted in favor.
And in February 2013 about 53 percent of voters said yes to a $48 million Wa-Hi improvement project bond issue.
When it comes to approval of bonds in Washington state, the majority does not rule. It takes a three-fifths majority — 60 percent — to pass construction bonds. It’s in the state constitution — Article VIII, Section 6.
In the wake of the most recent rejection of a bond proposal, there’s been some grumbling about the supermajority threshold for approval. Some seem to believe this is a new requirement conjured up by the initiative king, Tim Eyman, or someone else who shares his anti-tax bent.
That’s not the case. The supermajority requirement was added to the constitution in 1943 in the wake of the Great Depression and in the midst of World War II. It was not only for school bonds, but any government construction bonds as well as school levies.
The Depression left voters skittish about higher taxes given the economic uncertainty they’d been dealing with since 1929. Property owners were apparently concerned higher property taxes would be imposed on them — passed by non-property owners. They feared the added tax burden would result in the loss of their homes and farms.
The fairness of this supermajority has been debated frequently over the past 70 years.
In 2008, the Legislature and voters mustered enough support to change the constitution so school maintenance and operation levies could be approved by a simple majority.
It was a good move. Schools have come to depend on levies to fund all the programs that most considered essential to a well-rounded education. The average percent of levy funding across the state is 18 percent of a school districts’ annual budget.
But efforts to lower the threshold for approval of bonds have failed.
The state constitution has 21 supermajority vote provisions. This higher threshold has been placed on issues seen as being more sensitive to the public. .
The 60 percent majority for school bonds seems to not be a threshold that’s out of reach. Voter-approved bonds were used to build the new Edison School and overhaul Sharpstein and Green Park.
The constitution isn’t changing. Leaving the requirement at 60 percent of the vote is reasonable for large capital projects such as building new schools.