Opinion on I-1107: repealing taxes on soft drinks

Initiative Measure No. 1107 concerns reversing certain 2010 amendments to state tax laws. The measure would end sales tax on candy; end temporary sales tax on some bottled water; end temporary excise taxes on carbonated beverages; and reduce tax rates for certain food processors.

I’m in favor of sin taxes if I agree that the items being taxed are sins. It’s simple economics: tax the things you don’t want to happen. When the price goes up, people do them less. It’s the principle behind cap-and-trade and carbon taxes. It’s the principle behind congestion tolls. It’s possible to raise such taxes too high. When a thriving black market in the item comes around, then you know the taxes are too high.

I’m all for taxing candy and soft drinks. There exist relatively cheap, relatively healthier alternatives that people can buy instead, if they want to avoid the tax. If you can’t go without your Coke Zero, pony up.

The soft drink industry has spent something like $16 million to pass this. The advertising campaign says it’s all about the taxes on grocery items that were included in the tax for technical reasons. a) the taxes on those items are around $4 million. The beverage industry could have donated the $16 million to grocery manufacturers 4 times over, and we wouldn’t have a need for the initiative (if even that’s a concern). b) The opponents of the tax could have crafted the initiative to repeal just the grocery tax part, but they did not. Their arguments hold little weight with me because of this.

I’m for keeping the tax and voting no on I-1107.

Opinion on I-1098: High-earners income tax

Initiative Measure No. 1098 concerns establishing a state income tax and reducing other taxes. The measure would tax “adjusted gross income” above $200,000 (individuals) and $400,000 (joint-filers), reduce state property tax levies, reduce certain business and occupation taxes, and direct any increased revenues to education and health.

This one is another easy one for me. Washington has one of the most regressive tax structures in the country, because it relies heavily on the business and occupation tax, and the sales tax. Both of those taxes make low income folks pay a larger percentage of their income in taxes than higher earners. The B&O tax because it gets passed on in prices, though a fair amount of it is non-consumer goods. As people make more money, the marginal sales tax rate with respect to a person’s income falls because consumption falls off at higher incomes. Money moves from consumption to investment. To explain, if you are broke, the next $5 you get will be spent on food (or gas, or whatever). If you made $1,000,000 last year, the next $5 will much more likely be used to buy stocks (or bonds or whatever). The sales tax on the poor person’s $5 is going to be approximately 50¢ where the sales tax on the rich person’s $5 will be close to zero. The choice to not spend is constrained the poorer one is.

We also rely heavily on a property tax, but that also gets passed on to anyone who lives in the state. It’s either direct, or paid out in higher rent. I don’t think property taxes are as regressive as the sales tax, but they are still regressive.

I1098 establishes a high earners income tax for the state, while cutting a portion of property taxes and B&O taxes. Income taxes can sometimes be regressive, but they are easier to structure to avoid it. In this case, it’s very progressive. People who need the next $5 to eat won’t get taxed. People who invest it in stock will. For that reason alone I am for it.

I also think it will help stabilize the state’s revenue somewhat. Not completely, but a bit. Aggregate income is a better gauge of the state’s economic activity than consumption. Consumption can only drop so low, and it can only climb so high. It allows the state to skim off the income in good years for the bad. We currently do that with sales taxes, to some degree.

The only arguments I’ve seen against it are hysterical rantings. The legislature will extend it to other people in 2 years!! Yup. They could. They could establish an income tax and extend it right now. This changes nothing with regard to what the legislature could do. And it changes nothing as far as people’s ability to oppose it. If people are against increasing the tax, and the voters don’t want it, they’ll vote them out. Or have a referendum against the law.

I’ve also seen but I’m not rich even though I made nearly $2,000,000 last year. And even no one I know who makes $200,000 is rich. It’s not fair to MEEEEE! Here’s something to think about: SHUT THE FUCK UP! You are rich. This is not the end of the world. You can better afford this than someone making $20,000. They’ve been sucking it up for years. Now you’ll have to for a bit.

By the way, in case you were wondering, these opinion piece aren’t really intended to convince people. These are polemics which explain my reasoning for voting for them. I fully realize telling a rich person to STFU isn’t going to convince them to vote for this.

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.