• Tax initiative is on the Nov. 3 ballot.
• Lower taxes could cut billions from social programs.
• Opponents point to California as cautionary tale.
The bold print of a November ballot measure sounds appealing: Lower the tax burden on Washington residents by limiting government spending.
But foes of Initiative 1033 are urging voters to read the fine print because they believe the consequences would be dire and long-term.
Chief sponsor Tim Eyman describes I-1033 as a way to lower property taxes. If approved by voters on Nov. 3, it would place a cap on the amount of revenue from taxes and fees that state, county and city governments could collect into their general funds. The cap would be set at 2009 levels, and unless voters specifically approved new spending, the cap would increase only to reflect inflation and population growth. Any revenue above the cap would be used to reduce property taxes.
Critics liken the initiative to placing a salary cap on government at the worst possible time, because the recession would lock in spending at a dangerously low level. They point to a state study that said I-1033 could cut $5.9 billion from education, social, health and environmental programs by 2015.
More than 70 groups launched a campaign called Vote No on 1033. The alliance includes AARP Washington, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Microsoft, Washington State Hospital Association, Children’s Alliance, Nature Conservancy, Washington Education Association and the Washington State Council of Firefighters.
“It’s a false promise that Washington residents will get the same level of services for less money,” said Doug Shadel, AARP Washington state director. “Lower property taxes would come at the expense of severe cuts in health care, education and public safety.”
Gov. Christine Gregoire, D, is on the list of critics, arguing that revenue is already at a low point because of the deep cuts needed to close a $9 billion budget gap earlier this year.
“This would do serious damage,” said Remy Trupin, executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Washington State Budget & Policy Center. “We would be unable to meet all the needs we have in the state.”
Trupin said the initiative allows no leeway to cover unexpected costs such as natural disasters and federal mandates. It could prevent the state, cities and counties from recovering from economic downturns like the current one. The Budget & Policy Center estimates that state revenue will grow by $1 billion in 2011, but under I-1033 less than half of that revenue could be spent on public services. The rest would go toward property tax reductions, which could cause future budget deficits.
“We’d just be locking ourselves into this permanently recessionary budget, and it’d make it very hard for us to move forward and remain economically competitive,” Trupin said.
Eyman and his group Voters Want More Choices dismiss the doomsday predictions as absurd, saying the initiative is intended to control how much revenue government collects, not how much it spends.
I-1033 is similar to efforts in other states, nicknamed TABOR, a smaller-government concept known as “taxpayer bill of rights.” Colorado voters approved a TABOR initiative in 1992, but the results were so disastrous it was put on hold three years ago. Studies found that TABOR set Colorado back on measures such as job growth, prenatal care and education, in some categories falling to last among the 50 states.
Opponents of I-1033 also point to California’s recent experience with its budget crisis. A series of voter-approved initiatives over the years has forced spending restrictions that have contributed to a $26 billion deficit.
Neal Thompson is an author and freelance writer living in Seattle.