Seattle City Councilman Tom Rasmussen is floating a proposal to create a citywide transportation benefit district and add a fee to car tabs registered in Seattle. The money would be used to pay for roads, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian improvements. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable proposal. But the view is a little different if you step back and consider the long-term impacts on our form of government.
I understand and support Rasmussen's efforts to invest in our transportation infrastructure. Virtually every government in the country is struggling with funding issues and how to meet their obligations, and Seattle has more than its share of transportation needs.
Our local roads are funded through our city's general fund. This funding also pays for parks, cops, firefighters, human services, housing, and other services. Departments want out of the general fund because that's where the budget battles happen when there are downturns in revenue. City Light and Seattle Public Utilities are ratepayer funded and therefore largely immune to the ups and downs of taxes. For years, the general fund feasted on the real estate excise tax, but those revenues virtually disappeared when the housing bubble burst.
Transportation is hardly the only department that wants out of the general fund. Parks and libraries also want to escape, and one can visualize a time when Seattle Center is pushed out on its own with a separate funding source or taxing authority. These departments don't want to be competing for funding with cops, firefighters, and programs for the homeless. Plus, the general fund also funds a number of private non-profits that are expert at mobilizing their clients and members in council chambers to protect their funding — putting further competitive pressures on other departments.
So why should we care if we're taxed separately for all these services? Why not also form a public safety benefit district so we can guarantee four firefighters per engine, and a fully funded neighborhood policing plan? Why should libraries and parks have to compete for funding with roads and bridges? What'ês wrong with government a la carte?
The main concern I have with government a la carte is that elected officials will not be able to resist the temptation to put popular basic services on the ballot for funding, in order to protect the less popular programs in the general fund. This is not new. This is why we have parks and library capital levies. This is the thinking that gave us the Bridging the Gap levy for transportation infrastructure in the Nickels administration. Years ago we had a public safety levy, and more recently a fire levy to upgrade our fire stations.
But there are rumblings that such levies are no longer enough — mainly because levies are for infrastructure and not staffing. In fact, the recent parks levies have created a need for more staffing in order to maintain and manage our existing facilities. Our former parks superintendent, Tim Gallagher, resigned because, according to him, the failure to create a parks district was compromising the quality of our parks.
The same goes for transportation. Apparently, Bridging the Gap is insufficient although we still have two years left on that levy. Libraries too, feel pinched between public safety and human services.
So if we move to a la carte government, my question is simple: Do we get to see the whole menu? If we have to vote on the services that are basic functions of government, can we vote on everything else in the general fund?
Ironically, this is the vision of Tim Eyman. In the years since he became well known in the state with Initiative 695, the car tab tax rollback, his main point was that citizens should have a right to vote against — or for — every tax and fee increase. In effect, government a la carte.
Government is by necessity a monopoly and cannot go out of business. Elected officials essentially take the place of market pressures found in the private sector. But politics, personal priorities, and a desire to do something are powerful too. That is why other pressures are valuable in creating balance.
One of the main competitive pressures we have on general fund spending is the competition of priorities. If core functions of government are removed from the general fund, there will be little pressure brought to bear on staffing levels and programs that may not be prioritized when transportation, parks, public safety, and libraries are in the mix. The staffing and programs left behind in the general fund will be allowed to grow without elected officials having to balance priorities.
This is the appeal of a la carte government. It is also the problem.
In these economic times, government at all levels should reassess the way services are delivered and how priorities are set. This must be done before asking already pinched citizens for more money. We may find that we can't afford everything on the menu.