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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.