Opinion

Budget choices aren’t just whimsical

Earmarking certain government revenue sources for use only on particular kinds of expenditures is generally a bad policy, yet we have done it often.

The practice seems so common in our state that it’s become difficult to tell how our government leaders might operate without such restrictions.

Frequently, when people advocate the need for additional government expenditures for a particular purpose, they seem attracted to the idea of an additional tax earmarked for that purpose.

Rarely do they contend that existing revenues ought to be spent on their area of concern rather than something else.

A typical argument in favor of earmarking a specific tax asserts that spending on the program at issue shouldn’t be left to the whims of the Legislature.

Is that really how most people view our representative form of government? Have our elected representatives generally done such a poor job of setting priorities and appropriating funds for particular programs that the results of their deliberations can fairly be described as whimsical?

Probably not, since the same sort of argument is made when the issue is left to the voters to decide directly. If both the voters and their representatives generally decide such questions on a whim, who’s left to decide reasonably and wisely?

A more likely explanation for the attractiveness of earmarking revenue is that advocates for any particular program simply use one of the available methods to increase spending for their pet programs and defend that money from others for a while.

Having their own pot of money doesn’t often make them quit asking for more, but it does allow them to focus more of their efforts on obtaining additional revenue rather than constantly defending the revenue already earmarked for their program.

Therein lies the problem with earmarking revenue, since it places an obstacle in the way of people who would redirect that money to more pressing needs.

Take public transit spending, as an example. More than $1 billion is spent on public transit agencies each year in Washington, but their advocates keep coming back for more.

Most public transit funding comes from revenue sources earmarked to be spent only for that purpose, so the agencies rarely need to defend that money from people who believe it ought to be spent on something else — schools, for example.

Revenue earmarked for public transit illustrates why earmarking generally is bad policy. With all those single-occupant buses driving aimlessly around during most of the day, there is no doubt the revenue spent on them exceeds what is needed to relieve rush-hour congestion.

Yet there is ordinarily no need for public transit agencies to defend their revenue sources during the state or local budget processes.

They get whatever comes in from the sales tax, for example, no matter whether it is too much or not.

Just try to get that revenue away from public transit agencies and use it to do something useful, like widening some of those congested roads, and you may see how hard it is to remove that earmark.

Plenty of people — possibly the majority — hope that eventually some of the people stuck in rush-hour traffic with them will give in and take the bus. Now there’s a whimsical notion, but it persists despite years of evidence to the contrary and supplies public transit agencies with lots of allies.

Even if the majority finally accepted that most other people have the same unalterable preference for their private vehicles as they do, it’s too late — the additional, earmarked sales tax was approved by the voters, and that’s that.

It’s something to keep in mind when offered the opportunity to increase taxes for a particular purpose. Your perfectly rational decision may look whimsical to you some day, but few people are willing to go to the trouble to give you an opportunity to decide differently.

Far better would be a system in which budget decisions are made regularly by elected representatives who can decide how each dollar of revenue ought to be spent to meet the needs of today and the foreseeable future.

Those elected representatives must stand for re-election on a regular basis, so their budget decisions must bear some semblance of rationality for them to have a good chance of reelection.

If their decisions could fairly be described as acting on a whim, they wouldn’t be continued in office — unless, of course, it really is true that all decisions are subject to the whims of the voters and their representatives.

There is no better method of selecting the people who serve in our government, but we would probably do better in most cases without earmarked revenues.

Robert Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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