Our county and local elections this week will create change in policy and politics hereabouts. How much change? My own guess, before ballots are counted, is that only a nudge toward change will take place, since it will take a huge effort of leadership afterward to break policy patterns of a generation.
Changing longstanding policy is compared to changing the mid-ocean course of a great passenger liner: It takes time and is not immediately discernible. But what would significant change look like? Here is my own local agenda.
Reforming our tax system. Our present tax system is destructively regressive, falling heaviest on state, King County, and Seattle taxpayers and businesses least able to pay for the costs of public programs. The textbook solution would be to shift toward the same income-tax system prevailing in most American states. Time and again, however, Washington citizens' level of mistrust about such a shift has blocked such an effort. Ordinary taxpayers and small business owners fear that elected officials will simply add an income tax to existing taxes, thus not creating "reform" but merely heavier burdens of taxation. Tim Eyman's recurring ballot measures to limit taxing and spending find public support, and sometimes passage, because of this voter perception, one which is not wrong.
When I returned home to Seattle nearly nine years ago, I thought public education and political courage could bring Washington voters around to an income tax. I no longer believe that.
But there are things we can do, short of imposing an income tax, to make our tax system more rational. First, we can do away with the b&o tax and the Seattle head tax, both of which penalize job creation. Second, and even more importantly, we can review the huge number of "tax expenditures" (subsidies and loopholes) that have been granted over the years to chosen companies and sectors. Boeing's $3-plus billion break, earlier in the decade, is a prime example. The sum total of these tax breaks amounts to three times the size of our biennial state budget. Gov. Gregoire, in her 2004 and 2008 campaigns, pledged to review these breaks. Instead, she has instituted new ones.
Other notions, such as a flat tax or a Value Added Tax (VAT), also have been floated. Both would generate huge amounts of public revenue, but both would add to the present system's regressivity.
Revising our spending priorities The present state, county, and local financial distress is forcing examination of public spending that we have not undertaken in a long time.
Over more than a decade, Seattle and King County have begun major capital projects without due regard for their costs. The prime example is Sound Transit light rail, authorized by voters in 1996. The light rail "starter line," scheduled to go from the South End to Northgate, is many years behind its construction schedule, has gone dramatically over its promised budget, and has omitted several stations promised to voters when they approved it. Despite this halting start, an all-out campaign last year resulted in approval of a $23 billion expansion that would lay track and build several fixed-point stations in King, Pierce, and Snohomish County over the next several years.
The measure authorizing the three-county expansion contains a provision allowing Sound Transit to increase spending, as conditions might change, so that the $23 billion is almost certain to be exceeded. This amounts to the largest local-level tax increase in American history — and all in regressive taxes. Seattle mayoral candidate Mike McGinn proposes to extend the in-Seattle light rail system to several neighborhoods, thus passing the price tag higher.
(Whenever I write about light rail, I receive howls to the effect that I favor roads over mass transit. That is not the case, however. I strongly favor mass transit, believing that bus and bus-rapid-transit service would take more people to more destinations, far more cheaply, than the planned light rail system.)
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