This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.
Democrats taking aim at Initiative 960 should fire discriminately. Whether to suspend the initiative’s two-thirds vote requirement during this financial crisis may be up for debate, but I-960’s public disclosure provisions are not.
The state budget is undeniably in a bind. The Legislature faces a $2.6 billion gap between projected revenue and the cost of maintaining existing programs. It also faces a time crunch, with 16 months at most to recoup the money.
Spending cuts should be the first order of business. But barring a big bailout from the feds, the Legislature’s attention will inevitably turn to taxes – and I-960.
The initiative requires either a two-thirds legislative approval or a vote of the people to raise taxes. That rule does not differentiate – the elimination of a tax exemption that benefits a single business must clear the same bar as a one-cent increase in the sales tax.
The majority Democrats can forget about trying to get Republicans’ help passing anything faintly resembling a tax, especially during an election year.
What that leaves is a public vote in November that does squat for the current budget mess. It would be well into 2011 before state government could begin collecting any taxes approved by voters this year.
The situation could justify a temporary suspension of I-960’s two-thirds vote requirement – if Democrats can prove that taxes are truly a last resort to save crucial social services and that pending reforms will put the state on a more sustainable path over the long term.
They haven’t yet made that case – which makes the growing drumbeat for I-960’s suspension suspect. This editorial board didn’t endorse the initiative, but we did embrace the underlying premise of reining in spending.
Lawmakers should not take voter mandates lightly. But should Democrats prove they have exhausted all other legitimate options and have identified taxes that won’t delay economic recovery, they might be forgiven for temporarily taking a pass on some of I-960’s requirements.
Some, but not all. I-960, in addition to reaffirming limits on tax increases, also furthered the ability of average taxpayers to gauge and weigh in on the possible impacts. The initiative requires the Office of Financial Management to estimate the 10-year cost of proposed taxes and fees, and to alert the public as those proposals move through the Legislature.
Key lawmakers – Sen. Rodney Tom, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and Rep. Ross Hunter, chair of the House Finance Committee – say they hope to preserve I-960’s transparency requirements in some form.
Any changes will have to pass the smell test. The initiative’s public-disclosure mechanisms are already in place and could be easily salvaged.
The least the Legislature can do is ensure that taxpayers have a clear view of what happens this session. They will need that information when they vote in November, whether there is a tax measure on the ballot or not.