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Voters should be willing to pay cost of initiatives they approve

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Dec. 18, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
December 16, 2011 5:26 pm

This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.

The state’s current budget morass makes at least one point all too obvious: The pot of money available to fund services is a finite one. Add a new service to be performed, and something else has to be cut.

When state legislators enact a new program, they have to find the funding for it – either by cutting something else or paying for it with a new tax or user fee. That’s because the state constitution requires them to balance the budget.

Unfortunately, state voters are under no such obligation. When they approve an initiative, they essentially toss the ball to the Legislature to figure out a way to pay for it.

That’s not a great way to run a government – especially in tight economic times.

To address a $1.4 billion revenue shortfall, lawmakers are looking at slashing important state programs – including education, health care for vulnerable people, drug and mental health treatment, and staff for state parks. Yet at the same time, they are faced with funding a voter-improved initiative to provide more training for home health care workers – at an estimated cost of $18 million in the next two years.

If a bipartisan group of legislators – including state Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma – have their way, that kind of unfunded mandate will become a thing of the past. In their own proposed initiative to the people, they seek to amend the state constitution to require that future statewide ballot measures include funding mechanisms if additional costs are identified.

Would voters blithely approve a ballot measure if they also had to approve a higher sales or property tax? Maybe, but it likely would be a tougher sell.

The proposed constitutional amendment (Senate Joint Resolution 8218) is in its early draft stages, so very likely it will undergo revisions. One lawmakers might consider is the flip side of unfunded mandates: unidentified cuts. If an initiative seeks to abolish an existing revenue source, shouldn’t it also have to identify what state services should be cut to accommodate the drop in revenue?

The principle is important: When voters consider whether to approve or reject a ballot measure, they should be aware of the true costs involved – costs they will end up paying one way or the other.

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