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September 25, 2014 at 6:12 AM

Initiative 1351: For a multi-billion-dollar budget-buster, not much opposition

State Sen. jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle.

State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle.

State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, raised eyebrows last week when he spoke up at a meeting of the 43rd District Democrats. He hadn’t been planning to say anything about Initiative 1351, the Washington Education Association’s proposal to force smaller class sizes in every grade. But when a WEA representative got up and asked for an endorsement, and said the teachers’ union basically was doing the Legislature a favor by forcing it to do the right thing – Pedersen couldn’t help himself.

“It probably wasn’t politically smart to speak out against it, but I felt I had to say something,” he explains.

He talked about the programs that would have to be cut to pay for the measure, and the lack of evidence that 1351 would do any good.  By the time he got done, he not only had defeated the endorsement, he convinced most of the room the initiative is a multi-billion-dollar menace. Some 57 percent of the Democrats who were there voted to oppose it; two more votes and the 43rd-district Dems would have gone on record against it.

Certainly it was remarkable that Democratic-party activists in one of the state’s most progressive districts failed to stand with the teachers’ union. But more remarkable is that the argument took place at all. By no stretch could Pedersen’s impromptu remarks be called organized opposition, but this election season it is the closest thing to it. No one has launched a campaign to oppose Initiative 1351 – this in a state where even the most innocuous initiative can count on at least a token opposition effort.

The union-backed measure is one of the costliest proposals ever to appear on the Washington ballot. It would mandate lower class sizes from kindergarten to high school, a noble-sounding goal. But in the upper grades the educational case for smaller classes is somewhere between weak and non-existent. In grades K-3, lawmakers already are planning to hire more teachers to satisfy a Supreme Court order that they beef up spending on basic education. I-1351 would force the hiring of another 25,000 school employees for grades 4 through 12, at a cost of $4 billion every two years. The measure cynically doesn’t mention where lawmakers are supposed to find the money, avoiding a pesky problem that might give voters a reason to think twice.

Every interest with a stake in state spending stands to lose if the measure passes – social services, higher education, health care and even the public-employee labor unions that are counting on a cost-of-living pay raise next year. Social-service advocates say privately they are torn because they have traditionally been allied with the teachers’ union. Even if they were to begin speaking out, says a lobbyist talking on condition of anonymity, “what would we say? That we shouldn’t spend money on more teachers because it would take money away from programs for homeless people?”

Who wants to argue against teachers? Not the business community, which would likely be targeted by any tax increase. None need the ill will. The Association of Washington Business released a general statement of opposition last week, but that is hardly the same thing as a campaign. Though no polls have been released publicly, Washington business leaders have been hinting for months that they have weighed the question and see no return on a campaign investment — and perhaps it might be wiser to support legislative candidates willing to take a two-thirds vote to overturn or suspend the initiative once it passes.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, says he assumes 1351 will pass but still wishes someone would make an argument this election season. “I think of it as cowardice,” he says. Last week, at an AWB retreat in Cle Elum, he challenged lawmakers and stakeholder groups alike to begin speaking out against the measure. There were no takers. “Every newspaper of note in this state says it is a bad idea,” Schoesler says. “Business leaders, health care leaders, social service advocates – all agree it is the most horrible idea they have ever seen. But nobody can bring themselves to oppose it.”

With six weeks to go before the election, it appears the only argument WEA will get comes from the lawmakers who will have to deal with the mess. On the Democratic side, where WEA carries considerable weight, forthrightness like that expressed by Pedersen is rare. People have to understand the measure forces lawmakers to cut programs or raise taxes, he says. “If you get a chance to engage people in dialogue, they will often say, wow, I haven’t thought about that,” he says. Might be a little late, but at least there’s a little bravery this season.

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