Washington State

Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General

Bob Ferguson

AGLO 1975 No. 12 -
Attorney General Slade Gorton


A ballot title for a school district excess levy election may exceed the twenty word limit set forth in RCW 29.27.060 only to the extent necessary to cause such title to be in compliance with RCW 84.52.054.

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                                                                 February 5, 1975

Honorable David S. McEachran
Prosecuting Attorney
Whatcom County Court House
311 Grand Avenue
Bellingham, Washington 98225                                                                                                               Cite as:  AGLO 1975 No. 12

Dear Sir:

            This is written in answer to your recent letter requesting our opinion with respect to the legality of certain school district ballot titles relating to propositions to impose excess property taxes.  We respond in the manner set forth in the following analysis.


            The full text of the four ballot titles you have asked us to consider, identified in your letter as Exhibits A through D, is as follows:

            "EXHIBIT A

            "Proposition No. 1

            "School District Special Levy

            "Shall Bellingham School District No. 501, Whatcom County, Washington, authorize the County Commissoners of Whatcom County to levy a tax of approximately $11.49 per $1,000 of assessed value (100% of true and fair value unless specifically otherwise provided by law) for its General Fund upon all taxable property within the district in 1975 for collection in 1976 in excess of the annual tax levy permitted the district without a vote of the people for the purpose of providing $4,998,172.00 to secure proper textbooks and teaching materials, to make necessary repairs and replacements to school facilities, to pay adequate salaries, to prevent the impairment of the obligation of the district's contracts and to properly carry on the functions of the schools, all as more specifically provided in a Resolution of the Board of Directors  [[Orig. Op. Page 2]] adopted December     , 1974?

            "EXHIBIT B

            "Proposition No. 1

            "School District Special Levy

            "Shall an excess tax levy be collected in 1976 of $4,998,172.00 requiring approximately $11.49 per $1,000 assessed valuation for the Bellingham School District No. 501 General Fund, covering maintenance, operation and salaries?

            "EXHIBIT C

            "Proposition No. 1

            "School District Special Levy

            "Shall Bellingham School District No. 501 be authorized to levy an excess tax of approximately $11.49 per $1,000 of assessed value (100% of true and fair value) on all taxable property within the district in 1975 for collection in 1976 to raise $4,998,172.00 for its General Fund to cover maintenance, operations and salaries?

            "EXHIBIT D

            "Proposition No. 1

            "School District Special Levy

            "Shall Lynden School District No. 504 authorize the Whatcom County Commissioners to levy an excess tax of approximately $                   per $1,000 of assessed value (100% of true and fair value) on all taxable property within the district in 1975 for collection in 1976 to raise $                     for its General Fund to cover maintenance, operations and salaries?"

            At the outset, it is readily to be seen that the wordage of all four of these ballot titles is in excess of  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] the twenty-word limit1/ now set forth in RCW 29.27.060; i.e., so much of this statute as provides:

            "Questions to be submitted to the people of a county or municipality shall also be advertised as provided for nominees for office, and in such cases there shall also be printed on the ballot a concise statement posed as a question andnot exceeding twenty words containing the essential features thereof expressed in such a manner as to clearly identify the proposition to be voted upon, which statement shall be prepared by the city attorney for the city, and by the prosecuting attorney for the county or any other political subdivision of the state, other than cities, situated in the county."  (Emphasis supplied.)

            It is true that this office has previously characterized RCW 29.27.060 as "directory" rather than "mandatory."  See, AGO 57-58 No. 61 [[to Paul Klasen, Prosecuting Attorney, Grant County on May 9, 1957]], copy enclosed, in which, at a time when the statute set a seventy-five word limit instead of the present twenty, we said:

            "In our opinion, however, a statement in excess of seventy-five words does not, ipso facto, destroy the validity of school bonds issued pursuant to authority secured from the electors at the election.  The statute does not expressly so provide, and in such cases, the provisions of the statute are generally deemed directory rather than mandatory.

            "'. . . while some elections have been held invalid by reason of nonconformity of the ballot to constitutional or statutory provisions, more frequently an election is upheld notwithstanding an objection to, or irregularity in, the form of the ballot, as where there has been a substantial compliance with the constitutional or statutory provisions prescribing the form of the  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] ballot, the statute prescribing the form is directory only, no voter has been deceived or misled or deprived of his right to vote, by reason of the form used, or the voters were afforded and exercised an opportunity fully and fairly to express their opinion.  In determining whether the ballots substantially comply with constitutional provisions respecting their form, the purpose of such provisions should be kept in mind. . . .'  64 C.J.S. (1923) 535."

            All that this means, however, is that the use of an excessively worded ballot title will not necessarily invalidate the ensuing bond proposition or excess levy election.  It does not mean, on the other hand, that its use may not be enjoined in advance because of such excess verbage.  In other words, when we said that RCW 29.27.060 is directory rather than mandatory we meantdirectory ‑ not discretionary.

            Thus, we are not prepared to say in the "before" rather than the "after" election situation that any of the four ballot titles above set forth are legally correct.  In this regard we should note that under the first paragraph of RCW 29.27.060,supra, which similarly requires the attorney general to prepare ballot titles "not exceeding twenty words" for all state ballot measures (initiatives, referendums and constitutional amendments), it has been the consistent practice of this office in preparing those titles to adhere, strictly, to the twenty-word limitation without exception.

            Of course, it must be acknowledged that your problem with excess levy ballot titles is a bit more difficult than ours because of another statute, RCW 84.52.054, which provides that:

            "The additional tax provided for in subparagraph (a) of the seventeenth amendment to the state Constitution as amended by Amendment 59 and specifically authorized by RCW 84.52.052 shall be set forth in terms of dollars on the ballot of the proposition to be submitted to the voters, together with an estimate of the dollar rate of tax levy that will be required to produce the dollar amount; and the county assessor, in spreading this tax upon the rolls, shall determine the eventual dollar rate required  [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] to produce the amount of dollars so voted upon, regardless of the estimate of dollar rate of tax levy carried in said proposition."

            In order to comply with this statute it is, in all probability, necessary to exceed the word limit of RCW 29.27.060 by a few words.  For example, although we find ourselves able to draft a somewhat shorter ballot title than any of the four you have submitted to us, the best we can do and still meet the requirements of RCW 84.52.054, supra, is the following twenty-two word title:

            Shall Bellingham School District collect $4,998,172.00 in excess property taxes (approximately $11.49 per $1,000 assessed valuation) in 1976 for maintenance and operations?

            We do not, however, believe that this section of the property tax code can or should be used to justify a ballot title that is any longer than is truly necessary to comply therewith.

            We trust the foregoing will be of some assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Deputy Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

1/Exhibit A contains 135 words, Exhibit B contains 31 words, Exhibit C has 52 words and Exhibit D has 55 words.