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Dan Evans: No fan of “initiatives for hire” – especially not I-985

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Oct. 31, 2008 at 6:28 pm with No Comments »
October 31, 2008 6:28 pm

For those with the tenacity to plough through it (and reach the delightful anecdote at the end – but no cheating!), this is former Gov. Dan Evans sweeping analysis of what he calls “initiatives for hire.”

Short take: “These initiatives of the past decade have left us with a chaotic tax system and obligations for spending we cannot meet. Tax and budget-oriented initiatives are often poorly written, fail to anticipate unintended consequences, and mislead voters.”

It’s the (slightly edited) text of a speech he gave today at the South Everett Rotary and sent to us afterward. Bottom line: Pleeeease don’t vote for Initiative 985.

Today is Halloween, and four days from now is our general election. I’m not sure which is the scariest. We can all vote for our favorite candidates with relative confidence, but it is the initiatives which trouble me.

Initiatives are an important safety valve for citizens. But all initiatives have consequences, many of them not considered when we vote.

When a bill is presented to the Legislature, it is considered within the context of history, the state’s budget, and future impact on the state. Hearings are held, amendments made, arguments given, lobbyists heard, first in one House and then the other. After this tedious trial, a successful bill faces a governor’s scrutiny and possible veto.

In contrast, an initiative requires no scrutiny other than that of the author. They are usually single-purpose efforts which ignore history, distort public budgets and wreak havoc on the future.

Initiatives for hire are a West Coast phenomenon.

Thirty years ago, Howard Jarvis initiated Proposition 13 in California. Prop 13 limited the property tax rate to 1 percent of the assessed value of a home at the time of purchase and limited annual tax increases to 2 percent until the home is sold.

The results are wildly differing taxes for two homes of the same value, even though services delivered may be the same, a steady decline in the quality of California’s public schools, and shrinkage in local services. In the decade of the 1970s, California had 24 state propositions on the ballot. So far this decade there are 95.

The enthusiasm for property tax relief spread to Oregon, and Measure 5 was proposed by activist Bill Sizemore. It was the first of a steady stream of tax proposals by his Oregon Taxpayers United. The result: A radical decline in public school support and devastation of Oregon’s public universities.

Finally, a decade ago, Washington got into the act. Tim Eyman began his assault on representative government. During the past 10 years, he has filed 51 initiatives. Nineteen were withdrawn, signatures were not turned in on 14, nine are inactive, and eight were voted on. Six became law, but some were later declared unconstitutional. Virtually all attempted to limit taxes, but all have had unexpected consequences.

Initiative 695, the famous $30 license tab measure, passed nine years ago and was declared unconstitutional. The Legislature later reinstated the $30 tab, which lowered taxes, particularly on expensive cars.

We now know the consequences. Our ferry system, largest in the nation, is in desperate financial shape. The lost revenues could have financed a regular replacement schedule of new ferry boats.

Local law enforcement also shared in those lost revenues. Sheriff Sue Rahr of King County and many rural citizens now bemoan the loss of police coverage in unincorporated areas. Remember Initiative 695.

Initiative 722 followed the next year. It contained several items, including limiting property tax increases to 2 percent per year. Although passed by the voters, it was declared unconstitutional for reasons similar to initiative 695: too many different subjects in a single proposal. No further action was taken.

A year later, initiative 747 appeared on the ballot. This would limit property tax increases to the lesser of 1 percent of the state’s inflation rate.

It sounded good and was even more stringent than the previous year’s initiative. After extended challenges, this initiative too was declared unconstitutional. Shortly afterward, the Legislature met in special session to pass the initiative into law.

In the seven years since its passage, inflation has exceeded 1 percent by a total of 15 percent. Before the passage of 747, local governments overwhelmingly had kept their property tax levy increases to the cost of inflation. The consequences now are significant shortages of basic services, particularly in rural areas. This was the second hit on law enforcement, especially in unincorporated areas.

One year later, voters faced initiative 776. This was headlined as another $30 license tab, but hidden in it was a much more draconian idea.

Eyman would eliminate funding for Sound Transit to repay bonds already approved by the voters. By a narrow margin voters, particularly in Eastern Washington, approved the initiative, which was aimed primarily at urban Puget Sound communities. Again, the courts declared a portion of 776 unconstitutional: Voters cannot repeal taxes pledged to pay off debts. The rest of the initiative, however, had consequences. Road funding in the Puget Sound area was crippled, making it even more difficult to assemble sufficient revenue to deal with growing traffic congestion.

Voters were treated to relief for several years. Eyman’s proposals to divert money from the general fund for road building, require a supermajority vote of all tax increases, and cut property taxes by 25 percent all failed to qualify for the ballot. In 2004, he attempted to legalize slot machines statewide. Voters rejected that. He also proposed to authorize performance audits by the state auditor. The voters approved it – but the Legislature had already done it.

Last year, Initiative 960 proposed a two-thirds legislative vote on any new taxes – but that is already the law. It added requirements that would require virtually any fee increase for services be subject to legislative vote and that even a tax increase passed by a two-thirds vote be subject to an advisory vote by the people. It is too early to know the full consequences of this act, but almost certainly it will clog the Legislature and the ballot with scores of votes on obscure fee increases that clearly should be done administratively.

Mr. Eyman is not the only one to distort public policy by initiative. In the midst of the dot-com boom in 2000, voters adopted two initiatives, 728 and 732. The first was touted to reduce classroom sizes and fund pre-kindergarten programs. It set aside state property tax and lottery receipts to fund the program, but these monies were already being used to fund state services. It just mandated a specific use for general fund money.

The second was even worse.

The Washington Education Association filed Initiative 732 to require an annual cost-of-living adjustment for all K-12 and community college employees. Again, there was no funding source identified, just a mandate to the state to prioritize pay for teachers over all other employees. Neither of these initiatives could be sustained when the state’s economy softened, but the Legislature was left with the task of dealing with the wreckage.

Voters are attracted to any issue that promises to lower taxes and to those which promise benefits without any tax increases. These initiatives of the past decade have left us with a chaotic tax system and obligations for spending we cannot meet. Tax and budget-oriented initiatives are often poorly written, fail to anticipate unintended consequences, and mislead voters.

Let’s examine initiative measure 776. The only description voters saw on the ballot is the following:

“Initiative measure number 776 concerns state and local government charges on motor vehicles. This measure would require a license tab fees to be $30 per year for motor vehicles, including light trucks. Certain local option vehicle excise taxes and fees used for roads and transit would be repealed.”

Most voters do not thoroughly read the long voters pamphlet, and only a handful read the full text of the proposed measure. A voter examines the description, scratches her head and says to herself “I wonder what the current license tab fees are?”

Would this lower them or raise them? Actually, the license tab fees were already $30 based on a previous legislative act. Another voter scratches his head and says, “I wonder what ‘certain local option vehicle excise taxes and fees used for roads and transit would be repealed’ really means. Hey, repealed sounds good to me.”

The actual effect is that taxes already voted by citizens to issue bonds to fund mass transit would be repealed, and transit agencies would face bankruptcy.

The unbelievable quirk in this initiative was that voters in the tiniest hamlet in Eastern Washington were invited to decide the financial future of mass transit in King County. Fortunately, our Supreme Court put a stop to this nonsense by declaring that it was unconstitutional to interfere with an existing contract between Sound Transit and their bondholders.

All of this is history, but the flow of initiatives continues and we now have an opportunity to react to the latest Eyman idea.

Initiative 985 concerns transportation, and when you vote the ballot, the title reads: “This measure would open high occupancy vehicle lanes to all traffic during specified hours, require traffic light synchronization, increase roadside assistance funding, and dedicate certain taxes, fines, tolls and other revenues to traffic flow purposes.”

That sounds terrific, because everyone is frustrated by traffic congestion. But let’s examine what will happen.

HOV lanes under the initiative would be open to all traffic except from 6 to 9 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. Have you ever traveled across the floating bridge on Route 520 or along I-5 during rush hours? I have, and congestion starts in the evening long before 3 p.m. and lasts till long after 6 p.m.

The Washington State Department of Transportation studied the effect of the initiative on the Evergreen Point bridge route. Their study showed conclusively that there would be no additional general purpose vehicle throughput, that there would be more traffic delay with an extra 30 to 60 minutes of congestion each day, and that delay experienced by transit riders could increase by as much as 1000 percent. If transit riders get no benefit of speed and reliability, many will return to their cars, causing even more congestion.

The second element of the initiative requires traffic light synchronization. The state department of transportation already makes that a top priority along with maintenance of the highway system and public safety.

Eyman says all cities and counties must create plans for traffic light synchronization, and that it is a statewide problem. I heard a radio show recently in which a caller said, “I’m not really sure we need synchronization in my town. We only have one stoplight and it goes from green to yellow to red just fine.”

Therein lies an interesting consequence of this ballot measure. Funding would come primarily from shifting sales taxes on new car sales from the general fund to a special Traffic Congestion Account. Shifting this money from the general fund would reduce support for common schools, criminal justice, and other programs throughout the state.

The major share of congestion, however, is in the Puget Sound corridor. Voters from small communities, rural areas or most of Eastern Washington would be crazy to vote for this initiative. They would give up some of the state’s support for their public schools in order to send that money to Seattle and Bellevue. They would receive no benefits whatsoever from this initiative

Voters in the congested traffic lanes of central Puget Sound would also be crazy to vote for this initiative. It is titled the “Reduce Traffic Congestion Initiative,” but it does just the opposite. Interstate 5 and Highway 520 would descend into massive gridlock.

Democracy, as Winston Churchill once said, is the “worst form of government ever invented by man except for all others.” Representative democracy is difficult and even messy at times. An old adage says “no one should be forced to watch either sausage or laws being made.”

In reality, we do pretty well. Our fire and police departments function well, our garbage gets picked up, our lights stay on, emergency medical help is available, dangerous felons go to prison, we aid the needy and the disabled, educate our children, maintain first-rate universities, build and maintain a good highway system, and in many other ways provide quality services to our citizens. Is government perfect? Of course not. Are officeholders always honest? No, but overwhelmingly they are and work long hours to try to understand and respond to citizen needs.

We need to cease running – or wrecking – government by initiative and pay attention to our representative government. Work on campaigns, support your favorite candidate, even run for office. Don’t take the easy way out by being fooled into voting for initiatives that twist words and distort meanings and ignore long-range consequences.

At the rate we are going we may well match a famous political speech that was purportedly given by George Smathers, running in Florida against Claude Pepper for the U.S. Senate. It is a masterpiece of obfuscation.

“Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy.”

Taking notice
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