Initiative takes us two steps back

Seattle Soundings

Last month, a group of private citizens launched a signature drive to get a statewide initiative, I-1077, on the November ballot. By using a new high earners' income tax to finance reductions in property and B&O taxes, I-1077 would take Washington state's staggeringly regressive tax system (by far the worst in the country) and give voters a chance to take a significant step forward in making it a bit fairer.
And last week, new King County Executive Dow Constantine proposed two steps backward.

Bridging the gap
Constantine asked King County Council members last Wednesday to put a half-cent county-wide sales-tax increase on the August ballot, a move that would raise $79 million for the county and local cities in the first year and cost an average household an extra $60 per year. He appears to have the five votes needed to get the measure on the ballot. Constantine also said, at the same meeting, that he wants to put another tax hike on the November ballot: a property tax-hike proposal that would raise money for the first phase of a new county Youth Services Center (the courthouse used for juvenile and abuse/neglect cases).
To be fair, Constantine doesn't have much choice other than to at least ask voters for more money, even though he pledged during his successful campaign last year not to raise taxes during a recession. The economic downturn has so hammered county revenues that King County is expecting a $60 million shortfall on its $630 million general-fund budget this year - and that's after years of draconian cuts have left three-quarters of the county's budget dedicated strictly to public safety. According to Constantine, the choice is now between raising taxes and laying off prosecutors and sheriff deputies.
That said, the real problem here is in how Constantine wants to bridge the gap. In targeting an increase in the county sales tax - rather than the property taxes and development fees that also provide much of the county's revenue - Constantine is using the most regressive of all taxes to balance the county's budget on the backs of the people who can least afford it in normal economic times, and who are hurting more than anyone else in a time of record un- and under-employment.

A limited vote
Poor people, however, also don't vote at the same rates as the middle class, and this is where Constantine's plan veers from being simply wrongheaded to utterly sleazy. By putting his proposal on the ballot in August rather than November (when he wants to put the less-critical capital project up for a vote), Constantine is using our state's bizarre August primary to ensure that as few people as possible vote on the proposal.
Since the state Legislature moved the annual primary from September to August - before the traditional Labor Day start of the election season - turnouts, not surprisingly, have plummeted. People, for some inexplicable reason, would rather enjoy their summers than listen to or think about politicians. Go figure.
The result is that the folks who vote in August tend to be the most motivated citizens, people who are either compulsive voters (i.e., they went to high school in a century when civics was a required class), dedicated politicos or motivated by something specifically on the ballot. This tends to mean August voters skew older, more affluent and better educated than average.
Constantine's plan, then, is to use those voters (who aren't so inclined to tax themselves) to tax other folks instead - the ones who can't afford it but who aren't as likely to be paying attention.
Smart politics? Probably, and Constantine's first priority, after all, is to solve the problem. But ethically it's more than a little dubious. And in terms of the fairness of the tax system - which Constantine, as the most liberal of the five major county executive candidates last year, is supposed to care about - it's a big step backward.

Setting priorities
The November measure Constantine wants isn't much better. The current Youth Services Center building routinely attracts adjectives like "dilapidated," but that didn't happen overnight, and it won't worsen overnight, either.
To propose a second regressive tax hike in the midst of a severe recession - when delaying the project a year or two wouldn't make that much difference - is inexcusable.
Is a delay ideal? Of course not. But politics is about making choices and identifying priorities. And given a choice between building pricey public works and delaying (or, in the case of certain sports stadia, never building) them, local officials almost always err on the side of making sure it's their name that gets on the plaque, if not the building itself. They seem incapable of uttering the phrase, "We just can't afford it right now."
Taxpayers be damned.
I-1077 represents a long-overdue opportunity to move our tax system in the right direction, but it's not perfect, most notably because there's no sales-tax relief.
But getting it on the ballot and then passing it would be a major victory. And that, I suppose, is the one silver lining to Constantine's otherwise execrable plan: In the state's most populous county, on this year's ballots, we'd get not only I-1077 but a painfully timely reminder of why it's necessary.
It's a near-ideal reminder that without tax reform, politicians like Constantine will simply continue on their path of least resistance, soaking most the people who can afford it the least.
Geov Parrish is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on "Mind Over Matters on KEXP 90.3 FM.[[In-content Ad]]