I-960 would end budget shell game
Thursday, October 04, 2007
Olympia, WA - The biggest reason to like and vote for Initiative 960 is that it sticks it to politicians who have made a habit out of ignoring Initiative 601. Well, that and the fact that I-960 is a useful financial tool.
Remember 601? Adopted in 1993, I-601 limited the growth of state spending based on factors involving inflation and population growth. It also required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature for tax increases and legislative approval for some fee increases, among other objectives.
But the Legislature has been crafty with 601, finding loopholes to skirt the law. Its strategy of taking money "off budget" has amounted to what one state Supreme Court justice called a "shell game."
In the years where the shell game wasn't played, I-601 was effective at limiting government spending. A study by the fiscally conservative Washington Policy Center shows that in the decade before I-601, state spending rose, on average, by 17.3 percent per two-year budget period. "Since Initiative 601 became law, state spending increases have averaged 8.9 percent, almost half the previous rate of spending increase," WPC writes. "This post-Initiative 601 average includes the past two budgets adopted under Governor Gregoire, with their combined 25.1 percent increase (30.3 percent NGFS) in spending. These budgets reflect the higher spending increases allowed under changes the Legislature made to Initiative 601 in 2005."
Initiative 960, brought to voters on the Nov. 6 ballot by tax-slasher Tim Eyman, would reaffirm parts of I-601. Among other things, the measure would require two-thirds legislative approval or voter approval for tax increases. It would require legislative approval on fee increases. It would require the state to provide voters with a detailed cost analysis of proposed tax and fee increases. (This should not be seen as a burden, even though it carries a cost. Lawmakers should know the fiscal impact of their bills. Letting citizens in on that impact makes sense.) Finally, I-960 would require nonbinding public advisory votes if lawmakers fail to submit tax increases to the voters or pass them as allowed. As these votes are non-binding, I think they are more costly than they are useful.
Too many 'emergencies'
The initiative, on the whole, is more than likeable, however. It should put an end to the out-of-control use of emergency clauses on bills that do not address state emergencies. And politicians should view the two-thirds vote provision as a useful budgetary tool rather than a pair of handcuffs, as some describe it.
It isn't that lawmakers are bad people. They don't overspend to be gluttonous or cruel to workers who pay the bills. Many lawmakers simply want to help too much - and end up doing so at others' expense. The number of needs and wants in this state are endless. In helping too much, lawmakers create programs and enact policy that the public cannot support in the long run. Requiring a two-thirds vote for new tax increases can help lawmakers see the bigger picture.
Arguments against this initiative are interesting. Take this one from the voters' pamphlet. It says: "I-960 would require a public vote on countless budget items, no matter how small. The result? Less efficient government, long and confusing ballots, and millions of dollars wasted on endless elections." But if a tax increase truly is needed, two-thirds of lawmakers would agree on it. Besides, state revenue increases with or without new taxes. That, in fact, is one of the arguments many lawmakers use when justifying higher spending. They assure us new taxes won't be required to cover future program needs; that the economy's advances will meet future monetary obligations. Therefore, I-960 should only cause long ballots and endless elections if the Legislature is being irresponsible or excessive.
Some opponents of I-960 say this initiative is an affront to representative government. I disagree. I am a fan of representative government and a critic of many micromanaging-type initiatives. But Washington state residents hold the power of initiative and referendum in high esteem and this coupling of representatives and initiative powers is a smart system of checks and balances.
Simply put, representatives do not hold the only key to improvement. When a good initiative comes along, we should grab it. I-960 can help lawmakers represent us even better.
Elizabeth Hovde 's column of personal opinion appears on the Other Opinions page each Thursday. Reach her at email@example.com
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