Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Official Blog.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Tacoma tax plan needs a shot

A couple of days ago I interviewed for a seat on the task force being set up by the Tacoma city council to investigate and analyze city manager Eric Anderson’s city services tax scheme. It wasn’t too long ago on the opinion page of the Tacoma Weekly that I was roundly criticizing Anderson and his plan and the horse he rode in on.

Things change. Anderson’s presentation has changed for one. He’s dropped the "user fee" tag he began with and now he calls it a tax. It is a tax. He’s dropped the occupancy part, so it is no longer subject to criticism as a poll tax.

And I changed. I have a new appreciation for a voter approved tax dedicated to the core missions of city government. Police, fire and libraries comprise the main business of city government, and it is these services that are most directly threatened by the current flimsy revenue architecture.

So far as I know, this is the only forward looking plan in the state to address the inevitable funding shortages to come. If anyone else is aware, please let me know. Otherwise it appears cities are willing to watch doe-eyed as their services come under the knife year after year. Tacoma will be opening the door for all cities if the plan goes through, because its implementation will require state approval. The state needs to approve any new forms of local taxation. That step is part of what will be a difficult road.

The shortfalls we face are, of course, the handiwork and the something-for-nothing right wing and their tax-cut initiatives. We are witnessing the same dynamic on the national stage, where an enormous new tower of debt is being built, a tower which is more and more unstable and which threatens to collapse on our futures, all so tax cuts can continue for the rich.

Locally we don’t have the option of constructing such a tower, since states and municipal governments are required to balance their budgets. This means if we tell the city to cut taxes, we tell the city to cut services. Our kids may not get the schools and police and parks they need, but the tax bills they get from us in twenty years will be entirely federal.

This city services tax is a way of making things, as they say, "transparent." Voters get to choose whether to have the appropriate level of services or not. Increases to the baseline level of revenue would be submitted in a periodic referendum, probably synchronized with the budget cycle.

Eyman and his cohorts ought to love this voter inut, but they won’t. They are in the business of bashing a vague "big government." They are not in the business of making the painful choices that follow when people buy their fiscal snake oil. For that they employ the simple if disingenuous tactic of denial. And then they leave it to the bureaucrats and politicians to do the dirty work.

One valid complaint heard from many citizens is they don’t want to give up their representative government. We hired these officials to make these decisions, they say, not to put them up for voter micromanagement. It’s a good point, but at least it could be an object lesson and a wake-up call. Taxes are simply the financing for public goods. You can’t have the goods without the taxes.

Let’s give Anderson’s idea a fair hearing and tweak it if it needs tweaking. There are dozens of complexities and a couple of potential dead-ends that need to be examined. But before that there are also misconceptions to be eliminated, and not left to stew for months and confuse public discussion. The following points ought to be broadcast to a wary public at the beginning of the process:

1. Your regular property tax bill will go down.

2. Your utility bill will go down.

3. You will get a new bill, possibly every other month.

4. No government agencies, no schools, no park districts will be taxed.

But first! Even before that! If I get chosen, I will force (by filibuster if necessary, so watch out!) a change in the name of the tax. "City services tax" is not right. It is not a tax on city services, like a utility tax is a tax on utilities, or an income tax is a tax on income. This would be a tax based on property value for the benefit of city services. I like "city services assessment," differentiating it from the bi-yearly bill, which would be a "parks and schools assessment." Besides "assessment" is more alliterative.

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