Bad ideas whose time has come

A state income tax, higher Seattle parking rates, private waterfront development: budget woes can turn bad ideas into timely ones.

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Who's got the money?

A state income tax, higher Seattle parking rates, private waterfront development: budget woes can turn bad ideas into timely ones.

Hard times mean hard decisions. Every budget cutter from Olympia to King County to City Hall knows this. No bubble is going to save us next year, no sudden outburst of generosity. We have less money, we have to tighten belts and rethink how we do things. Some ideas that we've resisted in the past have to be considered if we're going to get through this.

I am a small-government progressive. I think liberals ought to be fiscally conservative, that government ought to be lean and compassionate. It cuts a couple of ways: We need to spend less and empower people to do more for themselves without fear of litigation. I believe in activist government, faster and smarter, but also in reforms that reduce the need for lawyers, insurance companies, selfish unions, and bureaucratic ass-covering.

While many people say this isn't the time to raise taxes, I disagree. As a fiscally conservative liberal I believe you have to cut spending and raise revenues. My experience managing budgets over the years says you have to work them from both sides of the ledger. Which is why I think the state, county and city have to increase revenues while they are slashing people and services. You have to get to something sustainable without drowning the baby in the bathtub, Club for Growth-style.

So as much as I hate tax increases, I think voters ought to support the sales tax increase for King County as an odious emergency measure. At the same time, we need to keep the state tax on soda pop and candy. And while I think the state ultimately ought to be out of the liquor business, and at the very least deregulate it, I don't see any crying need right now to make it easier for the public to buy more and cheaper booze. I like Costco, but they'll do just fine without selling the hard stuff to suburban drunks. The state, counties, and cities, however, need the revenues state liquor sales generate. So, for the time being, I say keep the state in the booze business and figure a graceful exit when there's no government funding crisis.

I'm not a fan of income taxes either, but I applaud the efforts of the two Bill Gates, especially Senior, in seeking passage of I-1098. I think this initiative demonstrates two things.

One, it makes the case that any income-style tax must come with the goal of tax fairness, of easing the burden on lower income people and small business. This proposal starts us on that path: moving the tax burden to the higher earners while easing state B&O and state property taxes. It attempts to do the right thing, and rather than dismissing it as the camel's nose under the tent, we ought to be rewarding the sanity and precedent of the progressive trade-off it tries to accomplish. The wealthy in this state pay too little, everyone else pays too much.

I will also quote from the inscription on the statue in Olympia of Washington's only Populist governor (and my favorite), John Rankin Rogers: "I would make it impossible for the covetous and avaricious to utterly impoverish the poor. The rich can take care of themselves."

The wealthy have a larger responsibility and this initiative with the Gates' supporting it makes a huge positive statement about the need for the haves to do more for the have-nots. Weirdly, in this day and age, the Republicans seem to think it's the other way around: that the rich deserve the tax cuts and the government should be taking care of them. I think it's time for rich people welfare reform.

Second, the initiative is an example of the need for citizens initiatives, which liberals, especially, love to hate. Win or lose, its backers are trying to accomplish what only a very few elected leaders have been willing to address: comprehensive tax reform and a more progressive tax system. The I-1098 supporters have grabbed the third rail of local politics and are swinging it like a club. More power to them.

On the city side, Mayor Mike McGinn is taking fire for his desire to boost parking meter rates up to $4 per hour downtown (cheaper than Chicago, more expensive than New York), and generally to tax cars and parking at a higher rates. I hate high parking meter rates and remember fondly my college years in Olympia when there were still penny parking meters downtown just like it was 1909.

Odious as expensive meters are, I think it's a sound proposal. The revenues are needed, but also, the higher $4 rates are still a bargain compared to piratical private lots. I parked under a downtown high rise during lunch with a colleague not long ago. I was an hour and ten minutes and was charged $17. This spring, I also paid a ridiculous one-hour rate at a Diamond lot (no street meters available) near the Pike Place Market. I was a few minutes late returning and received a Diamond overtime parking fine of $43 on top of my parking fee. So much for grace periods and customer service.

Even jacked up, however, street rates are still relatively affordable, and if not you can always pay a couple of bucks to ride the bus or train. The fact is, the high rates do deter people from driving; I certainly ride the bus much more than I did during Seattle's cheap parking days when you could even find free street spaces downtown. It hurts, but it works.

I also have no sympathy for the jerks who aren't paying their fines. I had a friend many years ago who was arrested at work and jailed one Friday afternoon for not paying her parking tickets. It cured her and the city got the money it was owed. I just paid a $42 ticket for mistakenly parking in an illegal space on Capitol Hill. I paid the damn thing because I was in the wrong. So Mr. Mayor, go get 'em.

Lastly, I read a column by Publicola's Dan Bertolet who writes about urban development in Seattle. Bertolet is a booster of the big and the dense. His column, formerly a blog, is called Hugeasscity, and that's what he wants Seattle to be, unapologetically. Needless to say, I disagree with most of what he writes.

But he wrote a recent provocative piece that actually makes a good point. He thinks the city is making a mistake by ruling out private development in the old Alaskan Way Viaduct footprint. Granted the waterfront park and public space is a great idea, but it has to be integrated with the commercial reality and potential of the waterfront. The city has hired a first-class firm to look at waterfront design, so why not allow them to consider ways in which the city might selectively integrate private development on city-owned property which will link downtown and the waterfront?

Bertolet worries that a windswept public plaza is something to fear. I agree.

I'm also concerned about preserving the older buildings on the waterfront and the adjacent Commission District and along Western Avenue and doubly concerned by the knee-jerk reaction some people have that tourism is unimportant (tacky, therefore expendable) and that the piers are barriers that need to be removed. No, the neighborhood needs to be renewed and restored, update and revitalized, and some of those piers are designated landmarks. I think creative minds can cope.

Bertolet fears that the old Viaduct swath will under-achieve because of a perceived anti-developer bias in Seattle. How anyone can think that the Seattle of the early late 20th and early 21st century is or was anti-devlopment is beyond me, but I do agree with the sentiment that many developers have earned their lousy reputations with bully tactics and bad design, and that there is some warranted public skepticism. But Bertolet is right that creating more activity and commerce down there should be a city goal and the last thing we need is green dead zone, the urban equivalent to Hood Canal: it looks nice, but there's no oxygen for the fish.

Bertolet writes, "[S]ince the city controls the land, we have the opportunity to stipulate exactly the kind of development we want." Ideally, that might be true, but Seattle has a history of botching such opportunities (see Westlake). Usually, it's the business community that stipulates to a cowed or collaborationist City Hall (Nordstrom will have cars on Pine Street!). Still, he's right that some private development should at least be considered and could be very beneficial if, and it's a big if, it's handled right.

(Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides some of Crosscut's funding.)


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.