NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

King County voters reject proposition to fund the arts with sales tax increase

Let’s stop deep­en­ing our reliance on regres­sive tax­es to fund things we care about.

That seems to be the mes­sage that King Coun­ty vot­ers are send­ing tonight to King Coun­ty Exec­u­tive Dow Con­stan­tine and King Coun­ty Coun­cilmem­ber Jeanne Kohl-Welles by reject­ing Access for All, the lat­est mea­sure to car­ry the moniker “Propo­si­tion #1”, which would have bol­stered fund­ing for arts pro­grams, but at an unap­peal­ing cost: an increase in the already-high, very regres­sive sales tax.

Con­stan­tine and Kohl-Welles were able to over­come strong objec­tions from their Demo­c­ra­t­ic col­leagues Dave Upthe­grove and Lar­ry Gos­sett back in the spring to secure Coun­cil approval of a res­o­lu­tion refer­ring Propo­si­tion #1 to the people.

But they could not over­come vot­ers’ objec­tions, despite hav­ing a resource-flush Yes cam­paign that raised $1.6 mil­lion and had no orga­nized opposition.

NPI took a posi­tion in sup­port of Access for All, but with strong reser­va­tions. Had it been up to us, Propo­si­tion #1 would not have appeared on the August bal­lot to begin with. Coun­cilmem­ber Lar­ry Gos­sett char­ac­ter­ized it in the voter’s pam­phlet as the wrong tax at the wrong time with the wrong pri­or­i­ty, in a strong­ly-word­ed oppo­si­tion state­ment he coau­thored with Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Dino Rossi.

Gos­sett may not have had a mil­lion bucks to rein­force his argu­ment in a series of glossy mail­ers, but it res­onat­ed with the elec­torate regardless.

The League of Women Vot­ers of Seat­tle-King Coun­ty could not reach a con­sen­sus on what posi­tion to take due to shar­ing Gos­set­t’s con­cerns.

Back in May, Con­stan­tine jus­ti­fied the deci­sion to push Access for All to the bal­lot for a vote by say­ing, “Vot­ers deserve the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn more about all that this pack­age can deliv­er to the region, and decide for them­selves the val­ue of those invest­ments. The arts and sci­ences con­nect us and bring us togeth­er, and a strong cul­tur­al sec­tor is an essen­tial build­ing block of a healthy community.”

We agree the arts and sci­ences are incred­i­bly valu­able to our soci­ety, and that is pre­cise­ly why we believe they deserve a bet­ter fund­ing source than the sales tax.

It’s impor­tant to remem­ber that the sales tax isn’t just regres­sive; it’s unsta­ble. Dur­ing reces­sion­ary gaps, which are cycli­cal, sales tax rev­enue tends to fall, some­times sharply, as as house­holds and firms scale back their purchases.

Wash­ing­ton’s unhealthy reliance on sales tax­es led to severe fis­cal reper­cus­sions for pub­lic ser­vices at the state and local lev­els dur­ing the Great Recession.

Sound Tran­sit, for instance, was forced to scale back ST2 projects in its south­ern­most sub­ar­eas due to lack of sales tax revenue.

When we pay tax­es, we are pool­ing our resources to get things done. Abil­i­ty to pay ought to the pri­ma­ry fac­tor in decid­ing who pays and how much.

But in Wash­ing­ton State, it isn’t. Our tax code is upside down. Mid­dle and low­er income fam­i­lies are pay­ing a much high­er per­cent­age of their income in tax­es than wealthy fam­i­lies are, and have been for decades. That’s wrong.

Local gov­ern­ments only have the rev­enue options that the state gives them, so this sor­ry state of affairs has to be addressed at the state lev­el. To date, it has­n’t been. Instead, the Leg­is­la­ture has wors­ened the prob­lem by occa­sion­al­ly giv­ing coun­ties and cities the author­i­ty to levy high­er sales tax­es while refus­ing to pro­vide pro­gres­sive alter­na­tives. And it has failed to repeal and replace Tim Eyman’s I‑747, which con­tin­ues to slow­ly choke cities and coun­ties, espe­cial­ly rur­al ones.

The Leg­is­la­ture has also squan­dered count­less oppor­tu­ni­ties to make the state’s tax code more pro­gres­sive. There’s been a lot of talk about the prob­lem, but scant action. Law­mak­ers have been unable to agree to take even small steps.

Many leg­is­la­tors seem to pre­fer the dev­il they know — an out­dat­ed, anti­quat­ed sys­tem that prin­ci­pal­ly relies on tax­ing gross receipts plus sales of most goods and cer­tain ser­vices — to unim­ple­ment­ed pro­gres­sive alternatives.

But next year just might be dif­fer­ent. Vot­ers in the 45th LD are deliv­er­ing a big vic­to­ry to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sen­ate hope­ful Man­ka Dhin­gra in the Top Two elec­tion, which sug­gests Democ­rats could con­trol the Sen­ate by the end of the year.

2018 will be a short ses­sion, but it could be a fruit­ful one, if Democ­rats get their act togeth­er and pri­or­i­tize improv­ing the tax code. Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee and House Democ­rats have got­ten on board with new ideas we need, like a cap­i­tal gains tax. The hangup has been in the Sen­ate, con­trolled by Repub­li­cans since 2012.

Bet­ter, more pro­gres­sive rev­enue options for local gov­ern­ments must be part of the reform agen­da. King Coun­ty lead­ers, includ­ing Con­stan­tine and Kohl-Welles, should make lob­by­ing for such options their top leg­isla­tive priority.

Wash­ing­ton is one of the rich­est states in the coun­try. We can afford to increase rev­enue for the arts, and we should. But we owe it to our­selves to do it in a way that does­n’t exac­er­bate the wretched­ness of our regres­sive tax structure.

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