Voting on tax increases in the worst economic times
By ROBERT MEADOWS
Port Orchard Independent columnist
September 23, 2011 · Updated 12:12 PM
The latest state revenue forecast adds more to worry about for the coming year’s government budgets, as if we didn’t already have enough to consider in South Kitsap.
Whether or not the economy begins growing at a healthy pace soon, voters will have to decide whether to approve a property tax “lid lift” for South Kitsap Fire and Rescue early next year.
The temporary six-year lid lift now in effect expires at the end of 2012, and unless replaced by another voter-approved lid lift, its expiration will put SKFR in a bind.
If the state revenue forecast is accurate, South Kitsap School District is vulnerable to a reduction in levy equalization funds, since this state funding is about all that’s left that isn’t untouchable “basic education” funding.
The SKSD board of directors could ask for what amounts to a lid lift by placing a higher excess levy on the ballot for voter approval next spring, if the state actually cuts levy equalization funding.
Already we are presented with a ballot measure from Kitsap County for the November election to increase the county’s current expense levy limit to provide more funding for programs serving the poor and homeless.
The additional revenue that would be collected if voters approve this measure would allow the county commissioners to increase revenue for the Veterans’ Assistance Fund by about $200,000 for the coming year without making offsetting spending reductions elsewhere.
Without this increase, the fund won’t be sufficient to continue what is now being done for indigent veterans.
The lion’s share of the roughly $1.4 million that would be added to the county’s current expense levy limit would go to other programs that may face budget shortfalls during the six-year period of the lid lift.
Since the state cannot increase taxes without a supermajority vote in the legislature or approval by the voters, one might wonder whether the state will put a proposition on a ballot for early next year.
The reduction in state revenues after the recession has not been erased by the slow economic growth after the recession ended more than two years ago.
Spending increases that were approved by the legislature during the few years before the recession have been walked back to an extent — perhaps as much as the legislature is willing or able to go.
Much the same situation exists for local government entities in the sense that not all increases during the good times can readily be eliminated.
The fire district could probably make the best case for a lid lift to replace the one approved by voters in 2006, since the increased revenue was targeted to increased service.
Absent a replacement lid lift, the additional service capabilities made possible by the lid lift approved in 2006 and the higher emergency medical services levy approved in 2009 may no longer be affordable.
Laying out the case for maintaining the same level of service voters previously approved should be relatively easy, since it would not involve a significant tax increase.
The school district may face a tougher task, if it becomes necessary to persuade voters to increase the local levy to replace state funding that goes away.
This would perhaps be a noticeable tax increase if it is to replace much of the state funding already eliminated and any of the state funding that may be eliminated in the near future.
Unless the things that would be saved or added back to SKSD’s educational programs are high on the voters’ list of priorities, getting the majority to approve a tax increase is anything but a slam dunk when the economic situation worries so many.
Hardest of all may be a statewide ballot measure to increase state taxes, since the budget is the biggest and thus hardest for voters to get a handle on.
Few of us pay much attention to budget issues in the best of times, since the decisions aren’t often ours to make and we elect people to do this work.
But it’s not the best of times, as most people recognize; so we need to pay more attention than usual to be able to cast an informed vote if asked.