Editor’s note: This post originally appeared at Sustainable Industries Journal. For permission to reprint, please contact them.

By now, any regular voter has been inundated with political mail. Television and radio are filled with political ads and politicians are appearing on local doorsteps. And with all that is at stake this fall there is really only one big ballot item in the Northwest that affects energy efficiency: Referendum 52 in Washington State.

Referendum 52 started as legislation earlier this year and now has to be approved by voters. By any measure Referendum 52 elevates the discussion of how best to prioritize energy efficiency. If it passes it will commit $500 million to retrofit school buildings all across the state. Here’s a look at how it works and what some of the benefits would be.

How it works

Referendum 52 authorizes the state to sell $500 million in bonds to fund comprehensive energy efficiency retrofits in schools. If R-52 passes, the Washington State Department of Commerce would supervise an application process to allocate funds. Projects that are submitted by local school districts would have to meet the rigorous standards of performance contracting, which means that the improvements must generate enough savings to match the cost of the improvements. The schools wouldn’t have to pay anything back however. Instead, they will keep the savings from reduced energy bills locally for use in the classroom.

There is a bottled water tax that is part of Referendum 52, but it doesn’t pay for debt service on the bonds. The tax was attached to allay the fears of some legislators and Washington’s Treasurer that the additional debt would adversely affect the state’s credit rating. However, that concern was likely overblown.

What it means for sustainable business

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  • The construction industry has been especially hard hit with a national unemployment rates going as high as 20 percent. The Bureau of Labor Statistics released in September data showing the six counties in Washington and Oregon surrounding Portland “had jobless rates ranging from 13.1 percent in Clark County, Wash., to 10.1 percent in both Multnomah and Clackamas Counties.”

    While the construction industry did add 3,500 jobs in Oregon in July, the recovery is still fragile. With stimulus dollars running out and a new stimulus unlikely the construction sector is likely to slip back into a decline.

    The passage of Referendum 52 would test a simple concept—making existing buildings more energy efficient—on a larger scale. The measure is an example of local stimulus; pushing money into the economy, turning construction jobs into green jobs, saving money for schools, and shifting the economy away from consumption and toward conservation. If Washington can do this other states are sure to follow.  If not for the economic impact, surely for its broader implications on our future.

    What it means for our kids

    The biggest problem in school buildings is high concentrations of CO2 and the presence of pollutants in the air—including molds. At least 17 studies have concluded that energy efficient schools are healthier for kids; for example, they reduce the incidence of flu and asthma attacks. New windows, insulation, and improved ventilation systems—paid for by the funding in Referendum 52—can create better learning conditions by improving air quality.

    Washington calls K-12 education its paramount duty in its state constitution and the majority of the state’s budget goes toward that purpose. As the economy struggles, so do schools. So giving school districts upfront capital to make energy saving retrofits and maintenance projects goes a long way toward saving those districts money on operations.

    And fixing up our existing schools will make them last longer, saving the state millions over the long term in funding for replacement schools. Passage of Referendum 52 would also mean the state, for the first time, would be helping local school districts with maintenance of their existing buildings in addition to supporting new school construction.

    Sustainability on the ballot

    There are not very many opportunities to vote for sustainability on Election Day. Supporting candidates can lead, if there are majorities and leadership, to sustainable policies. And sometimes initiatives can impose policy changes. But often those changes don’t get adequately funded.

    Referendum 52 offers a unique opportunity to do what many in the sustainability community have been working for: making existing buildings more energy efficient. Referendum 52 has the added benefit of making schools healthier, better places to learn and helps schools put money back into the classroom where it truly belongs.