Less Guru Than Guerilla
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
LESS GURU THAN GUERILLA: “Tim Eyman is not the state’s tax guru,” the Seattle Times editorial board stormed last week after the Washington Supreme Court dumped Eyman’s latest tax initiative on the ash heap. “The Legislature must stop outsourcing its tax policy reform duties to Tim Eyman.”
Surprising no one, the Supremes last week upheld the opinion of a King County Superior Court that Initiative 1366, approved by voters in November, was ill-conceived in numerous respects—but in particular justices found the measure violated the “single-subject rule” for initiatives.
“We’ve been here before,” the Times commented, but I-1366 was particularly egregious. If left in place, the measure would have sliced off chunks of state sales tax revenue until the Legislature was forced to redraft the state Constitution to Eyman’s liking.
“This is the kind of logrolling of unrelated measures article II, section 19 of the Washington State Constitution was adopted to prevent” justices commented in their ruling. “As the trial judge aptly stated, ‘It is impossible to determine how many people voted for this initiative because they desired adoption of the constitutional amendment at its heart and how many voted for it because they desired the short-term relief of the immediate reduction in the sales tax.’”
As the Court stated in its opinion: “[If I-1366 were allowed to stand], the new norm would be for the initiative sponsors to pair one drastic or undesirable measure with an ultimatum that it go into effect unless a specific constitutional amendment is proposed to the people.”
At its heart, as justices observed, the initiative was a convoluted hostage-taking approach to tax policy. It commanded the Legislature to put a two-thirds constitutional amendment on the ballot or the state would face a sales tax cut by about $1.5 billion a year. Timing was especially bad, as the Legislature is under a court order to come up with more education funding.
Justices tugged on the most obvious thread to unravel I-1366, but there were other threads in the shoddy garment.
“I-1366 appears to violate the Constitutional process in at least three ways,” a King County Superior Court judge observed as the measure was certified for the ballot last summer and finding it likely exceeded the power of initiatives. “The purpose of the initiative is not to legislate, but to invoke the constitutional amendment process. Sponsors characterize the proposal as a ‘choice,’ but there is no choice here.”
The supermajority requirement would have allowed a handful of lawmakers to stand in the way of attempts to raise revenues needed for education, infrastructure, and health care—essentially granting full veto power to just 17 senators out of 147 state legislators.
“I-1366 would have been disastrous for Washington,” analysts at Washington State Budget & Policy Center commented. “It would have essentially blackmailed the Legislature into restricting its own ability to enact new state revenue, or else lose $1.4 billion a year from the state budget for important services like higher education, safe communities, and health care. This, in the face of an historic mandate from the state Supreme Court to fully fund basic education for our kids and grandkids, which will require billions of additional dollars for schools each year.”
Eyman himself continues to display difficulties comprehending and following state law. The Mukilteo mischief-maker is under renewed investigation that he has systematically violated public disclosure laws in his attacks on lawmakers.
A lawyer representing Washingtonians for Ethical Government last week sent a letter to the King County Prosecutor and state Attorney General asking them to sue Eyman. If they don’t, the group plans to file a citizen action.
“Tim Eyman has repeatedly shown a complete and utter disregard for our public disclosure laws,” the letter reads, “and must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Eyman continues to enrich himself and waste the time of voters and the courts through a succession of initiatives placed on ballots each year—each doomed to fail for similar reasons and each more egregious than the last. The resulting chaos yields an excuse for a succession of legislative sessions (in thrall to that minority of senators) to fail to come to grips with the state’s aging and inadequate revenue system, the most regressive in America.
Undoubtedly, admittedly, the engine that drives voters to approve Eyman’s annual initiative mischief is the raging unfairness of that regressive and antiquated revenue system. But rather than address and cure its deficiencies, Eyman’s successive initiatives deliver permission to kick the can down the road for another year.
Comparative data from the Department of Revenue shows that, as a percentage of personal income, Washingtonians are paying less in state and local taxes than we have historically, and less than residents of most other states.
In 1976, DOR data shows Washingtonians were paying a little less than $120 in state and local taxes per $1,000 of personal income. As of 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, Washingtonians were paying $96.82 in state and local taxes per $1,000 of personal income. That’s also less than what residents of most other states were paying at that same time. Washington—the 13th most populous state—ranks 35th among the states with respect to state and local taxes. The ratio of public spending to population has been on a downward trend for decades.
Washington has seen tremendous economic growth as well as an increase in population over the last 30 years. Demand for essential state and local public services has increased significantly as a consequence of population growth plus new development, but funding levels have not kept up. Consumption tax is a poor mechanism to capture this growth; and property tax is structurally anemic under state law.
That is the heart of the state’s failure to properly fund public education. As the Times notes, the failure will persist as long as Tim Eyman acts as unelected governor over taxes in Washington.