SUNDAY, MAY 22, 2011

Smart Bombs: Banking on bad choices

Not to pick on Spokane’s mayor, but Mary Verner’s justification for shifting Photo Red funds and raising parking fines to help pay for six more police officers highlights the zany ways we raise revenue to pay for basic government services.

“No one is eager to ask the voters for more taxes,” Verner said on Wednesday. “But if you aren’t running red lights and you are complying with the parking code then you would be able to retain these essential services without feeling any pain.”

Problem is, if nobody is running red lights and parking illegally, then the city is out $800,000, or nearly half the amount it is trying to raise to replenish an understaffed police force. So do we secretly pull for lawbreaking?

I realize the Great Recession calls for creative budgeting, but we also do this when the economy is humming along. For instance, we increased the tobacco tax, which helped finance expanded health care coverage. Transportation funding is dependent on the gasoline tax, which is periodically raised to keep pace with needs. But if people respond to these economic signals by smoking and driving less, government ends up with revenue shortfalls. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

One perverse solution might be public service announcements that encourage bad choices.

“Preserve public safety. Run a red light.”

“Light up! It’s the healthy choice.”

“Drive that guzzler, not a tax muzzler.”

The least we can do is to send thank-you notes to these sources of vital revenues.

For whom the toll tolls. Entering a South Hill supermarket recently, I was informed by a signature collector for Initiative 1125 that this would lower the gas tax. Exiting the store, I was informed by a different hawker that this would ensure that gas taxes be used for transportation purposes only. I’m not naïve enough to expect accuracy in such sales pitches, but you’d think they could at least get their stories straight.

So would Tim Eyman’s latest foray into government disarray really lower gas taxes? It’s easier to make the case that they would go up if the initiative passed. The central target of the initiative is the tolling of roads, but the signature collectors didn’t mention that.

I-1125 would forbid the tolling of the Interstate 90 bridge in Seattle to help pay for the new floating bridge on Highway 520, which connects Seattle to Bellevue. Though Highway 520 will also be tolled, the state says it is $2 billion short of the $4.6 billion needed for that vital project. Plus, tolling Interstate 90 would alleviate the inevitable gridlock that would occur if that were to remain a free route.

I-1125 would also prohibit “congestion pricing,” which allows tolls to be raised when demand is higher and lowered when demand slackens. That’s a direct hit on smart transportation planning. If the initiative were to succeed, the potential for tolling would be diminished, putting more pressure on other transportation revenue sources, such as the gasoline tax.

In a guest column for The Spokesman-Review, Eyman notes that this initiative “reinforces” Initiative 1053, which made it more difficult to raise taxes. But it does nothing to lower them. Then again, the signature hawkers didn’t mention this point either. Nor do they get into the issue of legislators, not transportation commissioners, setting the toll amounts.

As for the claim that the initiative would ensure that transportation revenues be spent on transportation projects, that is already enshrined in the state constitution. Eyman says this also needs to be reinforced.

In the end, I have to cut the sales team some slack, because this initiative is such an odd mixture of anarchism and redundancies, it’s hard to condense into a quick sales pitch. When my son queried me, it took the better part of our shopping trip to cover everything. (Don’t worry, Mr. Eyman, he isn’t old enough to vote.)

To me, this cry for reinforcements is like persuading someone to wear two wristwatches so that one confirms the time of the other.

Great for the seller. Bad for the buyer.

Smart Bombs is written by Associate Editor Gary Crooks and appears Sundays on the Opinion page. Crooks can be reached at garyc@spokesman.com or at (509) 459-5026.

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