Reject Initiative 1033; right ailment, wrong cure

October 9, 2009 

By the Herald editorial staff

The trouble with voter initiatives is that they succeed simply by sounding good.

They don't actually have to be good.

It's how Washington wound up with:

-- An unconstitutional ban on additional Hanford wastes that was so poorly written it threatened all nuclear activities, including life-saving medical isotope production.

-- Restrictions on classroom sizes that no district can afford.

-- A costly mandate on the amount of "green" electricity consumers must buy, while excluding our most abundant form of renewable energy -- hydropower.

-- Automatic minimum wage hikes that force employers in rural Eastern Washington to keep up with cost-of-living increases in Seattle, one of the nation's most expensive cities.

Initiative 1033, Tim Eyman's latest attack on taxes, will probably pass. It sounds good.

The measure would limit increases in government revenues to a formula based on inflation and population growth.

Those are the main drivers behind the rising cost of services, so what's the problem? If there's a need for more money, elected officials can still ask voters to approve a tax increase.

Any money collected above the limits would be returned to property owners via a property tax rebate. Government kept in check and refund checks in the mail -- what's not to love?

Even without the Legislature's help, Eyman would have a pretty tempting plan. Given Olympia's habit of whipsaw spending -- feel-good sprees in good years followed by drastic cuts in the bad times -- anything that might bring lawmakers under control is appealing.

And frankly, if Eyman had limited the proposed restrictions to state government, we'd have to take a harder look at the plan.

But the way the measure is written, rejecting it is an easy call for us.

No matter how much Eyman and his supporters try to cast it as a necessary restraint on state government, the initiative's result would be a crippling blow to counties and cities.

The nonpartisan Washington State Office of Financial Management estimates the state would lose $5.9 billion over the next five years.

But cities are expected to lose $2.1 billion and counties another $694 million over the next five years if the initiative passes.

The measure would use the worst economic recession in decades as the base line for establishing limits on county and city revenue growth.

Every part of government would be hurt -- police and fire protection, schools, programs to help the elderly and disabled, public health programs, maintenance for our parks, roads and other infrastructure -- you name it.

That's why the initiative's opponents represent a wide diversity of interests. The list includes business, labor and religious leaders, advocates for the mentally impaired, children's advocates and educators, cities and counties.

George Allen of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce told The Seattle Times the initiative is "a truly bad idea."

"It puts a straitjacket on revenue during the recession," Allen added, "and we can't make investments in our future. It's a destructive and broken path."

The Washington Association of Churches is gathering signatures from religious leaders on a statement opposing I-1033.

"The Legislature already made deep cuts in public services in the past legislative session due to the national recession. I-1033 will make Washington state's recession permanent, forcing even deeper cuts and locking them in for years to come," according to the statement.

"The massive budget cuts passed this year will already devastate life-line services such as child care, public health, health care for kids and adults, housing and care for seniors. Opportunities for a quality public education essential for our children's future are being reduced."

We understand the temptation to vote for I-1033. Washington needs tax reform. The Business and Occupation Tax is unfair to businesses, and the overreliance on sales taxes is unfair to everyone.

Certainly, the Legislature seems incapable of fixing the problems.

Despite all the mistakes enacted by initiative, when the self-interests of elected officials conflict with the public's interest, it is often the only way to force change.

The problem is, I-1033 is the wrong cure for what ails us.

The Herald recommends voters reject Initiative 1033.

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