December 1, 2012 in Opinion

Tax threshold starts locally

Chris Cargill
 

Can you hear us now? That’s the question Washington voters are asking lawmakers following passage – for the fifth time – of a supermajority requirement to raise taxes. It’s a reasonable and popular tax policy in our state, and now is the time to take it local.

A higher threshold to raise taxes makes increasing taxes a true last resort. Newspaper editorial boards across the state, including that of The Spokesman-Review, concluded a supermajority requirement keeps lawmakers focused on efficiencies. “It’s forced lawmakers from both major political parties to fully debate the merits and compromise,” proclaimed the Walla Walla Union Bulletin.

The evidence is clear. In 2010, when given the chance, Washington lawmakers jumped at passing more than $6.7 billion in tax increases over 10 years after they suspended the supermajority requirement. Months later, voters repealed some of those new taxes.

The supermajority requirement is popular throughout Washington. It passed in all 39 counties, even in more-liberal King County. In Spokane County, it received 70 percent support and, in the city of Spokane, it was nearly unanimous among precincts.

It is unlikely that voters differentiate this policy preference between state and local. This is why citizens in Spokane should have the opportunity to adopt a higher threshold for taxes in the city. A charter change would be simple; all new taxes or tax increases in the city of Spokane would require five votes on the City Council for approval, instead of the current four.

Pierce County residents just approved a charter change that did exactly that with an overwhelming 67 percent of the vote. It now takes five votes to pass a county tax increase there.

Opponents will argue that a supermajority requirement to raise taxes is undemocratic. They ignore the fact there are more than 20 other supermajority provisions in the state constitution and a number of five-vote requirements in the city of Spokane.

In late November, Spokane’s City Council nearly adopted a 1 percent hike in property taxes just weeks after approving a generous benefit package for the city’s firefighters. It failed by just one vote. One councilmember proclaimed taking the 1 percent hike was no different than what has been done in previous years.

And that is exactly the problem. When governments operate on autopilot, citizens are left holding the bag. Had a five-vote requirement been in place, consensus would have been required and previous 1 percent hikes would not have passed without a larger discussion about the growing financial burden on taxpayers.

In October, consensus among council members was reached and the city’s hotel tax went up to pay for expansion of the Spokane Convention Center and Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. That vote was 6-1.

As the legislature heads into its next session facing a $900 million shortfall, despite a $1.5 billion increase in tax revenue, lawmakers will be eager to hand off costs to local governments. A charter change in Spokane and other cities to require a higher threshold for tax increases will give local taxpayers the opportunity to avoid getting stuck with the bill.

Voters continue to make the call. They should be given the chance to adopt the supermajority policy at the local level. Spokane and other city governments across Eastern Washington should listen to voters and adopt a reasonable supermajority tax limitation.

Chris Cargill is the Eastern Washington director for Washington Policy Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization with offices in Spokane, Tri-Cities, Olympia and Seattle. Online at www.washingtonpolicy.org.


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