The mantra at Tim Eyman’s headquarters is “Voters Want More Choices.” And, for the first time in eight years, they’ve chosen not to put one of his initiatives on the ballot.
Voters picked a good time to end the Eyman streak because the state is facing significant financial challenges, and his Initiative 1325 threatened to remove billions from the budget if the Legislature failed to adopt a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds majority for raising taxes or closing loopholes.
Eyman filed the new ballot item when the state Supreme Court struck down previous supermajority initiatives, saying the budgetary concept was unconstitutional. Eyman’s idea was to cut the state sales tax from 6.5 percent to 5.5 percent unless the Legislature acted.
Ironically, such an amendment would have required a two-thirds majority in both legislative chambers, meaning passage would have been unlikely, and the tax cuts amounting to $1 billion a year would have been a real possibility.
Eyman often refers to Olympia’s “insatiable” desire for tax dollars, but he exaggerates the state’s level of taxation and revenue collection. Because of the Great Recession, the Legislature cut $11 billion over several budget sessions. Lower tax collections also led to large state college tuition increases and a hefty annual fee to visit state parks.
From 2001-2011, only seven states limited spending more than Washington, and the tax burden has dropped relative to previous decades. In 1990, state revenue collection was about 7 percent of total personal income. In 2013, it was below 5 percent, according to the State Economic Revenue and Forecast Council.
The reality is that lawmakers have been afraid to raise taxes, partly due to the success of anti-tax initiatives. As a result, lawmakers in the next session must find a couple billion dollars more, on top of the $1 billion they produced last time, to make satisfactory progress on funding basic education. They’ve also been afraid to raise transportation levies, which is why the state can’t complete projects or reduce the size of the maintenance backlog. This inaction has stymied the economy.
As Eyman will tell you, the voters’ wish for lower taxes is clear. But so is their desire for greater education spending, having passed initiatives to increase teacher pay and reduce classroom sizes. The Legislature has ignored both, and a new class-size initiative has qualified for the ballot. If it passes, it will compete for scarce tax dollars.
The bottom line is that it’s impossible to balance budgets on contradictory wishes. Yes, voters want more choices, but the Legislature must intervene if those choices don’t add up.
The Eyman Initiative Factory has been idled, albeit briefly. But it’s a respite budget writers desperately needed.