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2009 isn’t the year for Initiative 1033

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Oct. 24, 2009 at 5:59 pm |
October 23, 2009 6:02 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The theory behind Initiative 1033 – tying the growth of government to the growth of population, plus inflation – strikes us as sound. What worries us is the impact of its peculiarities.

Tim Eyman’s I-1033 is roughly modeled on Initiative 601, which is a good foundation. The latter measure, enacted by the voters in 1993, also employed a population-plus-inflation formula to curb state spending.

Until lawmakers started covertly dismantling it, I-601 provided an effective check on the Legislature’s binge-and-purge cycle. The state had long been in the habit of expanding services and salaries generously during good times and painfully paring back during bad times.

Tying the budget to a real-world trend line made sense. I-601 also provided a cushion: A rainy day fund – designed to tide the state through recessions – had first claim on unspent revenues. Unfortunately, lawmakers raided that fund after it grew temptingly healthy in the late 1990s.

But I-1033 differs from its predecessor in important ways. Nearly every difference makes it worse.

It wouldn’t touch the state’s restored rainy day fund, now embedded in the Washington Constitution. But I-1033 would apply to local governments, too, and it provides them no 601-style incentives to put money aside to preserve police protection and other vital services during downturns.

That’s just bad fiscal policy. I-1033 does, however, provide a safety valve: Local voters can exempt their city and county governments from its restraints in perpetuity.

Also unlike I-601, I-1033 earmarks surplus revenue exclusively for property tax rebates. No one’s going to argue with a check in the mail, but why not also provide relief from sales and business taxes? In Washington, those have greater impact on commerce and job-creation.

Yet those are minor concerns by comparison with I-1033’s chief problem: timing.
If enacted now, the initiative’s revenue baseline would be welded to the trough of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Nor does that baseline include the $3 billion in federal stimulus money the state used to balance the 2009-2011 biennial budget.

Even with that federal money, the Legislature couldn’t balance the budget without steep spikes in college tuition, severe cuts in health care for the working poor, early release of convicts from prison and elimination of community supervision for many criminals. We would truly hate for this – minus the stimulus money – to turn into what Eyman calls “a new normal.”

Yes, the state is now in the purge end of that binge-and-purge cycle. But it would be far better to create a baseline somewhere below feast but above famine, as I-601 did. I-1033 would lock in cutbacks that will leave Washington with less public safety, health coverage and college opportunity. This isn’t the year to pass this thing.

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