I HAVE NEVER voted for a Tim Eyman initiative, but I do recognize that there's an essential unfairness that fuels their popularity. The state's spending priorities are out of whack, and too much of the tax burden falls on the average taxpayer. An antitax initiative is an easy and convenient way to register a protest, even if it's a clumsy way to make good law.
Nevertheless, tax reform is not in the offing. The third rail of Washington state politics is the income tax: Touch it and you die. In the current climate, the only actions politicians are willing to take are ones that make matters even worse. The Legislature won't fix the tax system; it won't raise taxes to ensure funding for many basic services; and, as Rick Anderson's story on p. 19 shows, our leaders—led by Gov. Gary Locke—are more determined than ever to dole out billions in tax exemptions to every special-interest group that can afford a lobbyist in Olympia.
So while Eyman's approach starves the state on behalf of the little guy, Locke and the back-roomers on Budd Inlet are removing from state coffers billions in potential tax revenue that should be paid by the big guys. The result, looking ahead, isn't pretty—budget deficits, deteriorating infrastructure, and the anger that comes from an electorate that knows it's getting stuck with the worst of both worlds: We're still paying unfairly and not getting our money's worth. We're left with the essential message that taxes are for suckers.
FOR LIBERALS, IT'S a dilemma. Our bleeding- heart inclination is to pay more if it will help government help the people. But when you sit by and watch your hard-earned dollars drained off by Boeing or the developer lobby, or by the purveyors of bull semen, for Christ's sake, it makes it awfully hard to convince yourself that being a good liberal and paying your taxes—whatever's asked—is doing any good for anybody but the people who need it least. Indeed, our willingness to pay is emboldening them to take more.
It wasn't lost on anyone that Locke, for the first time last year, truly went to the mat for something he believed in: Boeing. That sent a strong signal about his priorities and the priorities of the bipartisan consensus in Olympia. It opened the door wide to future extortion by other industries and interest groups who want the same loving, generous attention that Boeing got. He also surrendered any moral right he has to say "no." If we're willing to brazenly violate the state's constitution for Boeing, if we're willing to hire dedicated senior state officials to service Boeing, if we're willing to sell Boeing the state attorney general's office to fight environmental lawsuits on the company's behalf, if we're willing to keep secret many of the details of what we are actually giving Boeing, how can Locke or the Legislature deny, with straight faces, any business interest that throws its weight around?
The short answer is they can't, and they aren't. Tax exemptions for business and special interests in this state are growing at the fastest rate since the Great Depression. And you and me, we're getting stuck with the bill. Ostensibly, it's to help business out in a tough economy and to keep Washington "competitive." But as Locke says, in fact it's a new model for how the state intends to do business into the future. This is no bump in the road. It's the damn road map. And it's a mini-model of what's happening nationally and internationally: If you the people don't pay up with subsidies and exemptions, your jobs will be outsourced, or we'll move to Alabama. So the job of government, according to Locke and company, is to collude with corporate interests in keeping the rest of us over a barrel. Infuriatingly, business wants all the advantages of both free and protected markets. Well, they can ask for them, but somebody's got to represent the people and say "no."
SO, AS GOOD liberals, do we continue to vote for tax increases as the lesser of evils? We've been happy to pay the price of bureaucratic inefficiency to feed, house, and provide health care for the poor, to marginally "educate" our children, to have clogged roads to drive on. The alternatives look worse.
But we might have to re-evaluate whether we're actually helping anyone by being so tax-friendly. Our money is enabling a sick system now being carefully tailored by both parties to exploit our largesse.
Perhaps liberals ought to consider joining— and thus broadening—the tax revolt. Starve the beast? Monkey-wrench the system? Maybe that's the only kind of wake-up call that works. Look how the Legislature and Locke now do Eyman's bidding. Look how Boeing's tantrum worked.
If liberals as well as conservatives refused to condone the current tax system, with its unfairness and slavish devotion to giving away our money to those who don't need it, we could apply pressure from left and right to advance reforms. In fact, I think liberals have a special responsibility to make sure taxes are fair, because we believe in them.
The go-along, hope-things-get-better-while-you-pay-your-taxes nice-guy approach isn't making things better, it's enabling corruption. Maybe Eyman's right: The only way for the little guy to get any attention in Olympia is to shut off the spigot. Will it hurt people? Yes, but people are being badly hurt now. In fact, the only ones who aren't hurting are the guys in suits who get theirs regardless of who pays the price.