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Leaders deferring to voters on taxes

Wed., Oct. 12, 2005, midnight

If taxes are one of the certainties in life, voting on them is becoming a certainty in Washington politics.

Next month, Spokane city voters will decide whether local property taxes should go up to help pay for police, fire and library services.

And, along with other Spokane County voters, they’ll signal whether the local sales tax should go up to help pay for mental health services.

City and county voters will join the rest of the state in deciding whether the state gas tax should stay up, and go higher each year for the next three years, to pay for major road construction projects.

“We’ve gone from ‘No taxation without representation’ to ‘Representative government doesn’t justify taxation,’ ” Dick Davis of the Seattle-based Washington Research Council said of the trend to put so many tax measures on the ballot. “It’s not a good way to do budgets.”

Any one of these proposals could be a tough sell to voters. Three tax hikes – in the city of Spokane it’s arguably four, because if voters agree to raise the property tax, the City Council is committed to raising the utility tax, too – is a difficult trifecta, many political observers believe.

That may be all the more difficult with voters seeing record gasoline prices, worrying about an economic slowdown from rising energy costs and the effects of Gulf hurricanes, and facing a growing federal deficit to pay for national programs and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Putting taxes to a vote is a trend stretching back more than 25 years, and accelerating since 1999 when voters overwhelmingly passed state Initiative 695 to abolish one tax, the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, and require voter approval of most other tax increases. When the state Supreme Court eventually ruled the initiative unconstitutional because it covered two different subjects, the Legislature killed the motor vehicle tax but didn’t pass a law requiring a vote on every tax increase.

State and local governments, however, have become increasingly wary of major tax increases without voter approval.

That caution is supported by recent history, said John Barnes of the Washington Policy Center. When the Legislature passed an increase to the gasoline tax in 2002, voters repealed it five months later with Referendum 51 with more than 60 percent of the vote.

“They learned from that mistake,” said Barnes, a policy analyst for the Seattle-based research group.

The trend to put tax increases before voters isn’t strictly an anti-tax, anti-government movement, Barnes said. It’s also a recognition that state and local governments were regularly asking for more taxes, and voters began to expect something in return.

“Increases in revenue need to be tied to performance,” he said. “People were saying we need serious reforms before we give them more money.”

The Legislature tried to answer those concerns when it passed the new gasoline tax increase this year, tying specific projects to the money to be raised. But gas tax foes circulated petitions and easily got Initiative 912 onto the ballot in an effort to repeal the new tax, which will total 9.5 per gallon over four years.

In the Spokane area, this year’s ballot measures for tax increases are not tied to building new projects or starting new programs, but to maintaining existing services.

The city of Spokane is asking permission for a two-year property tax increase to avoid cutting police and fire services below current levels. Because that’s not enough to close a budget gap, the council would also raise utility taxes and city employees would be asked to make wage concessions.

For Spokane County, commissioners are asking voters for advice on a 0.1 percent increase in the sales tax to raise $6.5 million for mental health programs for children, the elderly and county jail inmates. Commissioners made some cuts in mental health programs earlier this year, and have warned of more next year.

While the City Council does not have the authority to impose the type of property tax increase it seeks, the commissioners can raise the sales tax. Instead, they put it on the ballot.

“I just can’t impose a tax without a vote of the people,” Commissioner Phil Harris said last month in agreeing to put the tax on the ballot. The measure is advisory, so commissioners aren’t legally obligated to follow the results.

Davis argues that turning so many tax decisions over to the voters reduces the incentive for elected officials to show leadership on the tough fiscal issues they were elected to handle.

It also leaves complicated decisions to the fate of “whoever happens to show up at the polls,” not the people who can spend weeks in council sessions or months in the Legislature debating and compromising on budget priorities, he said.

“The risk we run is, people don’t always think very clearly and connectedly when we make these (ballot) decisions,” agreed Blaine Garvin, professor of political science at Gonzaga University.

Specialty taxes – on tobacco or alcohol – are easier to sell to voters than general taxes. So are taxes that collect money and tie it to a specific purpose like health care or drug education or school programs, Davis said. But that also makes a government budget harder for the public to understand by creating so many special accounts and cuts down on the discretion of people elected to make those decisions.

Asking voters to approve new taxes to avoid losing services can be even harder than asking them to approve new taxes for new services, Barnes suggested.

“As a general rule, people might respond with ‘What have you been doing with all the money we’ve been giving you?’ ” he said.

“On top of that,” said Garvin, “it looks like blackmail.”

Defeating a tax increase is usually much easier than passing it. To win, government officials, or the people who support the programs the money will cover, need to give voters a clear reason to vote for the tax.

“There’s a real ‘Show me what I’m buying’ attitude,” Garvin said.


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