Opinion on I-1053: Requiring a 2/3 vote to raise taxes

A few of my friends have asked if I planned to write about my opinions on the upcoming election, particularly regarding the initiatives on the ballot. I love spouting off my opinion, so here I go! Of course, I want to point out to my 3 or 4 readers that none of what I write is particularly original. You can probably find much better argumentation elsewhere on the internet.


Initiative 1053 concerns tax and fee increases imposed by state government. The measure would restate existing statutory requirements that legislative actions raising taxes must be approved by two-thirds legislative majorities or receive voter approval, and that new or increased fees require majority legislative approval.

This is a Tim Eyman measure. That alone almost tells you how I will vote on it. The only Eyman measure I’ve ever voted for was the one that instituted performance audits.

Several previous Eyman measures passed that duplicate what this measure does. But the state legislature has suspended the rules instituted by those initiatives in order to pass budgets. How does that work? According to the Washington state constitution, Article II, Section 1(c), after two years the legislature may do what it wants with any initiative. During the two years, changing an initiative requires a 2/3 vote of the legislature. It’s been more than two years, so they suspended it. This initiative basically unsuspends it for another two years. (The legislature did not overturn the law, just suspended it.)

Well, as you can guess, this royally pissed off the Eyman crowd, and that’s why they have this initiative.

My view is that a supermajority should only be required for extra-ordinary circumstances, things that don’t happen too often: changing the state constitution, declaring war, suspending civil rights, expelling a legislator. A supermajority means that a minority of people can prevent action. That’s appropriate to prevent civil rights from being abrogated. It’s appropriate to keep a power from being unchecked. But for mundane things, it’s inappropriate to require a consensus. It checks power too much. We already have mundane checks on power for mundane things: voting out legislators, separate bodies of the legislature, gubernatorial vetoes, the court system, referendum, and probably lots more that I haven’t thought of.

There’s nothing more mundane for the legislature about running government than determining the budget, taxes, and spending. Holding the running of the government hostage to a minority is bad business. As much as I object to funding abstinence only sex education, for instance, I don’t think a liberal minority should hold that up. (Luckily, that doesn’t seem to be the case recently.) I have the option of voting for a different candidate, for collecting petitions on a referendum, or having a sympathetic governor veto it (or line-item veto it).

I have another philosophical problem with this initiative, like the previous versions of it: it attacks a made up problem. Washington state does not have out of control taxation. I-1053 proponents would have you believe that the legislature can’t prioritize and so it just increases taxes to fund everything it wants. But that’s not the case. The Great Recession reduced the state’s revenues by billions. From I-1053 proponents, you’d think the legislature’s response was to raise taxes and fund all previous programs. We faced a reduction of revenue to the tune of about $2.8 billion for the current budget. The legislature raised about $780 million in taxes. The state received another $1.4 billion from other sources, such as the federal government and the rainy day fund. It cut about $714 million from the budget. I certainly think people can legitimately argue that there should have been more cuts. What is ludicrous is the idea that government just taxes and spends.

The approach is wrong. Don’t just say the legislature has it’s priorities wrong. Tell them exactly how it’s wrong. Get signatures on an initiative that eliminates programs you think are wasteful. (Initiatives can’t actually budget though. That does make things more difficult for this method.) I almost never see people who say the state taxes too much actually propose specific programs that should be cut. They instead rail about wasteful spending. But they never want to do the hard work of finding the wasteful spending. That’s the legislature’s job, according to them. Which it is, but it is also their job as citizens, voters, and human beings to give the legislature guidance. The few times I see suggestions of actual cuts, they are unrealistic for various reasons. Eliminating welfare completely. Or the cuts don’t come close to adding up to what’s needed to cut spending by the amount they want.

The reality is that the state tax burden is declining. That’s the evidence from the conservative Tax Foundation. In 1994, the state had an effective tax rate of 10.4% ranking it 17th among states. In 2008, the effective rate was 8.4%, ranking us 35th. Those numbers include both state and local taxes. At the state level only, the number of employees dropped over 4% from 2008 to 2009. Over the longer term, the state hasn’t exactly grown hugely in employees. According to the U.S. Census, the state had 133,000 employees in 1997, 149,000 in 2002, and 153,000 in 2007. That’s about a 15% growth in employees over 10 years, and before recent cutbacks. Over that same time period, the state’s population grew 13.6%. State government got a little but larger than our population would indicate, but not by much. Wages and salaries for state employees over that time went from $307 million per month in 1997, to $411 million in 2002 and $504 million in 2007. That seems like a huge increase, until you adjust for inflation. That $307 million in 1997 is worth $397 million in 2007, and the $411 million from 2002 is $473 million in 2007. Inflation adjusted, that’s a 26% increase from 1997 to 2007, but only a 6% increase from 2002. Compare that to the 6.5% increase in population from 2002 to 2007. Our gross state product (a measure of the size of the economy) grew 34% from 1997 to 2007. In other words, the state government isn’t growing like metastasized cancer. It’s grown, but not in uncontrollable ways. It’s growth our current tools for managing our government already can deal with.

To sum up, philosophically I-1053 is the wrong approach. Practically, I-1053 tries solve a problem that doesn’t exist to the level it’s proponents claim it does. That’s even if you think growing spending is a problem at all. I don’t. I think the legislature is already doing a halfway decent job at overall budgeting.

Data was pulled from generally reliable sources but percentages and other calculations when not explicitly supplied were done on the back of a napkin. Go dig up the data yourself if you don’t trust my numbers.

Stop the cuts
Stop the cuts / Photo by Tom Wills used under CC BY-NC license

Photo by Fibonacci Blue used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.