A sound argument for smaller government
August 20, 2009 · 9:12 AM
Sometimes the desire of many people to limit the size and power of government seems extreme, but once in a while it’s possible to see their point.
The constant tension between the need to use government to accomplish essential things and the need to place limits on our elected representatives’ power has always been with us.
When the Founding Fathers sought to “form a more perfect union,” they thought long and hard about checks and balances to make it less likely that the federal government would become our master rather than our servant.
In the past few years, residents of the state of Washington have tried to impose limits on government’s power to raise revenue, since the appetite for more money seems insatiable.
Rather than give our elected representatives the power to increase taxes as one might expect in a republic, we have moved toward a more democratic form of government by requiring voter approval.
The idea is to pull back on the reins a little, since elected officials tend to respond to people who make the effort to talk with them as though their desires represent the public’s demand for more.
If the voters must approve a tax increase to fund a certain project, then the vote tally can show what the public actually demands from government.
Unfortunately, not every law that makes it onto the books for one purpose is sufficiently limited to deter elected officials who get an idea in their heads and run with it.
Roughly 50 years ago, “urban renewal” and “industrial development” were in favor as answers to “blight” and underdeveloped land.
In Washing-ton, port districts were given additional taxing power to fund harbor improvements and industrial development of “marginal land.”
The idea was an extension of the original motivation behind establishing port districts.
When port districts were first authorized, people considered it better to give control of harbor improvements to government rather than private, profit-driven corporations.
Noticing that private investment had not improved marginal lands to make them suitable for job-creating industries, it seemed logical to empower port districts.
Now the commissioners of the Port of Manchester are apparently intending to use that law to fund their ideas, even though industrial development is the farthest thing from their minds.
Instead, they desire to purchase land for the future construction of a combination library and community center.
They have a different way of obtaining the tax increase which would be identical in every respect to the tax they are considering, except for one thing — the other way requires voter approval.
Across the water in Bremerton, the city council decided that more revenue is needed for roadway and sidewalk maintenance.
Surely no one would dispute that such work is a necessary role of city government, but the question is how to fund it.
The council members, acting as the governing body for a transportation benefit district formed by the city, have decided to ask the voters to approve a new fee to be paid when renewing motor vehicle registrations.
So far, so good. The voters will decide whether to approve or reject the new fee.
However, the law authorizing the fee requires the adoption of a plan for a transportation improvement necessitated by existing or anticipated traffic congestion, and that’s not what the city is proposing.
The voters won’t have a planned project to consider, since the council decided that a plan could be worked out later despite the law’s terms.
There is even a requirement in the law for public hearings later on, if there is a need to make material changes in the projects the fee is to fund.
How would anyone know a material change has occurred if there is no project plan at the time the voters cast their ballots?
At times like this, it’s easier to see how some people could become so frustrated as to advocate seemingly extreme limits on the discretion our elected officials can exercise.
Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.