Taxing Times

Political death and taxes are still a reality, leaving voters with a slate of poor choices.

It's tough to see a good man go down. The political self-destruction of Ron Sims has been painful to watch. Nearly two years ago, I wrote a column about how the once-Teflon-coated King County executive had descended into a political death spiral, alienating core constituents and making a series of blunders, including instructing county employees not to say "Merry Christmas" because it was culturally insensitive.

"The cherry on the kamikaze cake," I wrote, "is the recent election debacle." The debacle I was referring to in 2002 was the mess that was the county elections department. But I could easily recycle the phrase to refer to Sims' recent run for the governor's mansion. In a primary election with a heavy Democratic turnout (53 percent of voters chose Democratic ballots), in a year that theoretically should have been tailor-made for a Sims run, he was crushingly defeated by Lockean centrist Christine Gregoire. Sims had abandoned his own comparative centrism to run to the left. That tactic didn't work, even in his home county, and it garnered him less than 30 percent of the statewide vote.

But, as with many of Ron Sims' political missteps, this one combined a principled stand with a mistaken strategy. Sims rightly declared that none of the state's larger problems could be solved without a major overhaul of our tax system. But Sims also wrongly believed that tax reform—and, more specifically, the idea of a state income tax—was no longer the "third rail" of local politics.

Now, people in focus groups might say they're willing to consider tackling tax reform, just like they also say they want to watch more educational TV. But in reality, Wife Swap is a hit, and juice still flows through the third rail—at least enough to electrocute a decent politician.

A sad fact is that aside from his self-inflicted wounds, Sims is also a victim of that great dissonance in an electorate that wants what it is not willing to pay for. And weary, much-abused taxpayers— victims of our state's unfair system—have lost confidence. They want to shake up the current system yet distrust genuine, large-scale reforms, convinced, I think, that those would be less fair in the end.

Another sad outcome is that Sims' misadventure has set back the cause of tax reform for a while. Attacking systemic problems will be postponed. Temporary measures, patches, fixes, cuts, and creative work-arounds are in our future—until things become truly untenable. In other words, things are going to get worse before they get better.

On the right, Tim Eyman will continue to seek relief for taxpayers who feel overburdened; on the left, various interest groups will try to get around the problem by passing specific initiatives on popular issues with separate dedicated funding; and in the middle, our new governor, whether Gregoire or Republican Dino Rossi, will spend time shuffling budget chairs on the Titanic.

The upcoming election offers voters many chances to make things worse.

Initiative 892 would allow slot-machine gambling off Indian reservations and use some gambling revenue to reduce property taxes. This is the kind of proposal that, some folks have warned, awaits us on the slippery slope of paying for basic services, like education, with gambling revenues from sources like the state-run lottery. It also has the appeal of a "free money" solution: The average voter gets a tax cut paid for by the suckers.

Initiative 884 creates a special "trust fund" to pay for more preschools and smaller class sizes. It also raises teacher pay, creates more room for college enrollments, and funnels money to higher ed for research and financial aid. But do we really need a separate trust—and a new layer of bureaucracy—to accomplish this? Plus, it's funded by a 1 percent increase in the regressive state sales tax, placing much of the burden on the little guy, as opposed to larger businesses like Microsoft, which can use out-of-state entities to dodge state sales taxes. The cause is worthy, but will the solution further alienate taxpayers?

In King County, there are Charter Amendments 1A and 1B, which ask whether and when to reduce the size of the County Council. The argument in favor is that county elected officials should take their fair share of budget cuts—to feel the pain a bit themselves. The argument against is that the savings aren't significant, and that fewer council members will have to serve a growing population. Nevertheless, it has a "serves them right" appeal.

Also on the county ballot are Advisory Measures 1 and 2, which ask voters if they want to tax themselves for major transportation improvements—a prelude to a future regional big project and tax increase package—and if so, which taxes would they like to pay. One of the options is a tax on the number of miles you drive a year, which is part of a general trend away from real tax reform and toward user fees. Such forms of taxation are also being considered for Seattle road improvements. The thinking is also reflected in proposals like Greg Nickels' idea to charge for parking at city parks like Seward and Green Lake. It's devolution of the idea that public amenities are for the common good.

Unfortunately, in the current climate, nickel-and-diming ourselves to death with situational solutions—even ones that complicate the big picture or exacerbate our problems—seems to be the best we can do, at least as long as Ron Sims' political corpse is still warm.

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