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With Judge's Ruling, Seattle Ballot Will Pit Childcare Plan Against Pre-K Pilot

Kyle Stokes
Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess speaks as Mayor Ed Murray and former Mayor Norm Rice look on during a press conference in South Seattle to promote the city-endorsed preschool pilot program.

Come November, voters can choose one or neither of the two ballot measures that deal with childcare — but not both, according to a King County judge's ruling.

Judge Helen Halpert on Friday shot down a legal challenge designed to allow Seattle voters a chance to approve both measures, namely a pilot program to fund low-income kids' preschool tuition and a minimum wage hike for the city's more than 4,000 childcare workers.

Instead, the ballot will look as the Seattle City Council set it up in June: voters will have to choose between the city-endorsed pilot plan and the union-backed Initiative 107, which includes the pay bump and a centralized training institute for early educators across the city.

State Law Trumps Local Law

The judge sided with attorneys for the city, who essentially argued state election law trumped local law.

An attorney for the city said Washington statute provides for state lawmakers to act as the city council did. If voters send an initiative for the ballot, state law allows the Legislature to accept it, making the proposal law; reject it, sending it to the voters for an up-or-down vote; or offer an alternative proposal and allow voters to pick one or the others.

I-107 supporters "have raised this specter that the [city] charter would supersede state law," said attorney Greg Wong, who represented the city. But he argued state law prevails, and "the city is obligated to follow it."

'Partisan Politics' In The Courtroom?

But a lawyer for I-107 said state law doesn't trump the city charter, which he argued outlines a process for the city of Seattle that's slightly different from state law. Under the charter, even ballot measures that supposedly conflict get separate up-or-down votes.

Attorney Knoll Lowney represents Yes for Early Success, a group behind I-107, which is supported by local childcare worker unions. He accused city officials of offering politically-motivated legal arguments.

"People who are running this thing are leading the campaign against I-107," Lowney said during court arguments. "They're playing partisan politics in a way that shouldn't happen."

Wong argued the city council should have the power to decide whether the two measures conflict. Lowney argued that power should only belong to a judge.

Conflict Pits Tax Hike Vs. 'Unfunded Mandate'

The city-developed pilot proposal comes with a $58 million property tax hike and would eventually cover preschool tuition for up to 2,000 low-income children, and charge more well-off families on a sliding scale to participate.

Though city officials and the unions disagree greatly on how much I-107 would cost, the ballot measure itself does not include a source of funding.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess have called I-107 an "unfunded mandate" that would interfere with not only the preschool pilot, but other city budget lines should voters approve it. I-107 backers say that argument is unfounded, saying Murray and Burgess are framing a "false choice."

"We are considering whether to appeal today's decision allowing City Hall to deny voters their constitutional rights to a clean and fair vote," said Heather Weiner, a spokesperson for Yes for Early Success, in a brief statement.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.