The legislative session has begun, and our elected representatives face a most dismal fiscal and budgetary picture. What to cut? How to raise revenue in an economy that is, for the time being, gasping for air? Then, to make matters worse, Tim Eyman struck again. The result? Even less money to spend.
Oh yes, and the little new money we will raise? Right, we will stick it to the cigarette puffers (via another initiative)-- most of whom hold positions down aways on the income food chain. More regressive taxation. What a great idea!
As I was pondering the situation, my friend dropped by to tell me that he had voted for Tim Eyman's latest tax cutting initiative. "I've voted for all of them," he proclaimed.
"You did what?" I asked through a cloud of incredulity.
"I vote for all of Eyman's initiatives," he continued, "we have a regressive tax code, and it's unfair."
No doubt about that. Our fair state insists on operating with a most regressive tax structure. Sales taxes and property taxes result in the the poor paying more, while the rich pay less. And the truth is, most working poor likely benefit more from lower sales and property taxes, courtesy of Mr. Eyman, than they do from all those human services being cut.
I must admit my friend made a good point.
And he went on to make a better one (one, I suggested to my friend, the greedy Eyman would never make): "I've got a pretty decent job. Shouldn't I be paying my fair share?"
He continued, "You know what we need?"
"What," I asked?
He then utters the words that every governor since Dan Evans has avoided like the proverbial plague. Income tax!
"We need an income tax, that's what we need, and until Eyman's initiatives bring the state to its knees, nothing will be done."
Dump the sales tax, restrict the property tax and change the Constitution to allow for a mildly progressive income tax.
I might point out also, it isn't just the working poor who are victimized by our regressive tax system. Business must hate it as well. Our high taxes mean fewer sales. High property taxes mean less revenue. Fewer sales and less revenue mean less investment. Less investment means fewer jobs. Fewer jobs means fewer tax dollars to funnel back to the same groups who most are hit by the tax rollbacks. Sounds like a death spiral, if things get out of control. Someday the departure of Boeing might even be viewed as the canary in the dangerous coal mine that is our state.
Dan Evans, way back in the '70s, was the last governor to argue for an income tax. Even he, our state's most popular governor ever, failed to convince the electorate that a progressive tax was not only good for the state but would likely mean that most voters would pay less in taxes. Since Evans, no other governor has had the nerve, courage, skill, determination -- you name the necessary combination of qualities -- to tell the public what it needs to hear.
Frankly, the public needs to hear more.
The public needs to hear that we confront a paradox: In order to ensure the success of tax reform, we will also need to reform the initiative system that has set the table for the tax reform that we need. The truth is, the initiative, in this day and age of instant gratification, has had and is having the effect of overwhelming deliberative government. To make tax reform work, we will need to put the Tim Eymans of our little end of the country out of business; but, to put them out of business, we will have to give them what they think they want.
Lots and lots of what they want. As my friend does, just vote for all of them until the state is at its knees. Death by chocolate. Vote for Eyman to destroy Eyman.
No more capricious enemy of responsible and deliberative government has ever been invented. Instead of informed debate and discussion, our initiative process gives us government by wholesaling, wishful thinking, innuendo, sound-byte and propaganda. It might also be pointed out that the more successful the initiative process, the more diminished elective governance becomes, which necessarily means the elections matter less, which necessarily means that interest groups mean more.
The initiative made its way into governance in the late 19th century. It came in response to closed and corrupt governments, most of them in the West, most dominated by one or more railroads. The device has always posed problems for deliberative government; but today, the need to reform the reform has grown ever greater. Against the computer as political weapon, deliberation has no chance. Nor did our founders intend to turn government into a free-for-all in which everyone is a budget writer and elected officials are mere window dressing. I would remind Eyman of Benjamin Franklin's words when asked by the woman what the Constitutional Convention had produced: A republic, Madam, if you can keep it.
Ah well, I'm not holding my breath, and Mr. Eyman, I doubt you need worry. Income taxes will remain an elusive dream and initiatives will stay as a civic nightmare. Neither reform has a chance. Even though they know the state needs both reforms, our timid leadership won't even discuss these issues. Not even this session, when the legislature has been reduced to slicing and cutting. We need bold leadership, a commodity that we don't seem to produce all that often. Nor can we cling to any hope that our most uninspiring Governor will step up to the plate; he hasn't managed to find even the batter's box on less important issues.
By the way, my friend likes linking tax reform with initiative reform. If there was a pair of statewide initiatives creating an income tax while keeping initiatives away from the budget, he'd vote for both.
Should they ever be approved, Tim Eyman would, of course, have to seek alternative ways to amuse himself -- as soon as he awakes from his hypoglycemic coma.