In early November, Washington voters turned down a multi-billion dollar proposal for roads and transit. It got me thinking back to 1968. That was the year we had a chance in King County to build rapid transit countywide. The federal government would have matched every dollar nine-to-one. The bond issue got over 50 percent of the vote. So how come there was no mass transit? As a bond issue it needed 60 percent. What happened to the federal match? If you go to Atlanta, you can ride their fast and efficient rail system, built with money targeted for Seattle.
We have a history of rejecting ballot issues that would have resulted in a 21st century transit system. We also have a history of passing ballot measures that put the squeeze on funding already targeted to roads and transit. In 1999, we approved a measure to roll back the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax for 80 percent of the vehicles on the road (and increase it for those cars that were more than 10 years old).
The State Supreme Court found this initiative unconstitutional, but the legislature passed it into statute anyway. They figured they could somehow make up the funding loss and not risk a voter backlash. It worked for a while, but when the recession hit, the back-fill funding dried up. This paved the way for a gas tax increase that recouped less than half of MVET funding. So we are still behind the eight ball, with population growth and economic growth increasing the demands on transit.
In 2001 Initiative 747 was voted through, limiting a district’s property tax increase to one percent, regardless of inflation. That’s the initiative that the State Supreme Court also found unconstitutional Nov. 8. Listening to Tim Eyman, the initiative sponsor, you would have thought that property taxes would skyrocket.
What he didn’t say is that the law merely reverts to what it was under Referendum 47, which limits districts’ property tax increases to inflation or six percent, whichever is LESS. This is a reasonable measure, one that the legislature and the governor seem to have forgotten in their haste to reassure the media that, just like Tim Eyman, they too want nothing to do with taxes.
The politicians are worried about the next election, not about the best policy. So now they have called a special session, not to deal with the health care crisis, or the need for more slots in community colleges, but to put into statute the very initiative that will ensure that the state and its counties and cities won’t have the revenue for health coverage, road repair, and community college students. With Initiative 747, property taxes don’t keep up with inflation or population growth or, for that matter, our need to compete in a global economy. So we will be strapped again for funding local schools, roads, fire services, police, libraries… in fact, all the public goods and services essential to our democracy.
That seems to be a recurring theme from this month’s election. Initiative 960 will, if upheld, require a two-thirds vote of both the Senate and the House and an advisory vote of the people for any tax measure or user fee increase. So if, for example, the state needs a fee increase to pay for Sno-Parks because more people are using them this winter, it would first have to get a legislative super majority and then win the approval of voters. If the state wanted to increase copying fees, that too would have to get a super majority and a referendum. So we get more red tape and fewer public investments.
As is the case with most of Tim Eyman’s initiatives, this one is so poorly thought out that it will most likely be found unconstitutional and thrown out. But it will still have its impact, with the legislature afraid of its own shadow when it comes to funding, through increased taxes or user fees, the things that we all expect from government: good state parks, good schools, good universities, good roads, good ferries.
The odd thing about these initiatives to cut funding for government is that they fall on those election years when the fewest people vote and the voting electorate is the most conservative. Initiative 695 was in 1999, Initiative 747 was in 2001, Initiative 960 was this year. The most recent initiative received the approval of less than one quarter of registered voters.
But we are not fooled all of the time. When all the votes from this election are counted, House Joint Resolution 4204 will pass, amending the state constitution so that a simple majority of voters can approve school levies. Citizens in Washington understand that to have a good public education system, we have to invest in it. In a democracy, that decision to invest should not be held hostage by a minority of voters.
To find out how to urge the legislature to think before enacting I-747, turn to page 11. John Burbank is founder and director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a progressive public-policy think tank based in Seattle. He writes regularly for the opinion section of the Everett Herald, where this column first appeared. More info: www.eoionline.org.