King County tax vote: save-the-puppies packaging

The sales tax measure going before voters in November is structured to put puppies and law enforcement up front. But is this really the best the county could do?
The sales tax measure going before voters in November is structured to put puppies and law enforcement up front. But is this really the best the county could do?

The King County Council recently decided to ask voters to fund a two-tenths of a cent sales tax to help rescue the county budget. The county is short millions of dollars, despite a two-year effort to cut costs by closing parks, freezing some wages and laying off some workers.

As the November election draws closer, voters will need to decide whether to push the tax rate up to almost 10 percent and raise an additional $40 million per year.

The council knows that people will be hesitant about a 0.2 percent tax on purchases as our county recovers from one of the worst economic downturns in recent memory. So they've designed a proposal that is almost guaranteed to pass: you could call it the "save the puppies" tax. Would you vote for a proposal that saves cute puppies from certain death? Of course! Similarly, the tax proposal funds law enforcement. If you don't vote for it, law enforcement and courts will be cut. The sheriff's department won't be able to respond when you call 911. Crime will rise. Criminals will go free. How could you vote against that?

The tax measure won't tell you that the county budget is a shell game: they will, in effect, drain whatever revenue they get from this measure from law enforcement back into the general fund. The extra money will allow funding general county services that a sales tax couldn't be passed for. For example: Consider if you would vote for a measure to fund the $4 million Office of Management and Budget? How about $6 million for the Office of Information Resource Management? Probably not. Those departments aren't "cute" enough.

Here are three alternatives that the county could have considered.

  1. Raise Property Taxes: Sales taxes are incredibly regressive. This means that the poor are disproportionately affected by sales tax increases, because they spend a much greater percentage of their income on sales-taxable items than richer residents. On the other hand, a property tax is more fair. Unfortunately, King County is up against a state law: They can't raise the property tax any higher. One alternative to a sales tax increase would be to lobby state lawmakers to allow King County to raise its property taxes higher. That would allow the county to raise more revenue in a way that doesn't hurt the poor as much.
  2. Capital projects: If your salary at work was recently cut by 10 percent, would you start remodeling your kitchen or buy a new boat? I don't know anyone who would. Despite a 10 percent reduction in revenue, the county is spending millions on the equivalent of remodeling and buying new toys: building new trails and buying properties. There's $1.5 million dollars for a new park in Seattle, $5 million for a new trail on East Lake Sammamish, $700,000 for a trail in Enumclaw, $3 million for buying open space on various rivers, just to name a few. I love trails just as much as the next guy, but new trails now? The council could have put a measure on the ballot to redirect money from the parks levy (or wherever else these funds are coming from) to fund basic services in the county without increasing taxes.
  3. More cost-cutting: A more serious effort to cut back on expenses at a county level would seem to be in order. The county has been pushing cities to annex urban areas. Shouldn't the sheriff's office need less deputies to patrol those areas? The aforementioned Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Information Resource Management cost taxpayers $10 million. Is the county getting $10 million in benefits out of those departments? An across-the-board cut is good, but wouldn't a more targeted cutting of unnecessary services and staff be better?

As the election season gets under way, it is worthwhile to think about how measures like this one are marketed and whether there are other alternatives that aren't on the ballot. Puppies, even cute ones, shouldn't capture so much of our attention that we lose track of what else is happening.


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