Let the voters settle it — if they want to

Choosing which changes in state law to advocate during the upcoming session of the Legislature is probably tough for the Kitsap Regional Coordinating Council to do.

The council consists of the Kitsap county commissioners and representatives from the Port of Bremerton and all four cities, so there are few ideas for change that would affect all of them equally — if at all.

Since the Legislature will have to deal with yet another projected budget shortfall during the shorter session in 2010, it may not be easy to enact any bills that make matters worse or change nothing about the state’s budget outlook.

At the local level, struggling to balance the budget also commands a great deal of the KRCC members’ attention, so it isn’t surprising that some of the items they are considering for their legislative agenda focus on that problem.

For ordinary folks who wonder whether these state and local budget problems will be solved by raising taxes, it may pay to keep a close eye on all the players.

If removing some of the restrictions in state law governing the allowable uses of tax revenue is chosen as a top priority by KRCC, the effect on taxpayers isn’t necessarily bad.

So long as voter approval is required for any tax increase at the local level, we would have only ourselves to blame if a majority decides to balance spending with revenues by increasing revenues.

For example, one item under consideration according to the material provided to KRCC members for their October meeting is removal of the prohibition against using new taxes to supplant existing revenues already being used to pay for a program.

Rather than leave it to the voters to decide whether to approve higher taxes to pay for essentially the same level of service, some provisions in state law require that the new revenues be used for new services.

If one is concerned about a “bait-and-switch,” knowing that a new tax would have to be used for new services rather than taking the place of previously existing taxes that are shifted to something else would be an advantage.

The trouble is that this prohibition against supplanting existing funding removes the ability of voters to decide whether paying more to avoid service reductions is acceptable.

Especially in a severe economic recession, when existing taxes may be insufficient to maintain services, it becomes important to have the option of using new revenue to avoid cuts in service.

If people are concerned about being led into a tax increase that ends up paying for something they had no desire to fund with higher taxes, isn’t it good enough to be able to vote out the officials who do it at the next election?

For those of little faith in the ability of voters to punish officials who perform a “bait-and-switch,” there is an alternative to existing state law — allow a ballot measure to contain the prohibition against supplanting existing funds, but don’t require its inclusion in the measure.

Let the political process handle what is essentially a political question, rather than put into state law a prohibition that works best only for those locales unfortunate enough to have no elected officials the voters trust.

If the political environment isn’t tainted by distrust, there can still be situations in which officials determine that voter approval of a tax increase won’t happen unless the new revenue is spent only on new levels of service.

State law ought to enable local officials to make the decision whether to propose a ballot measure that restricts the new revenue to new services or lets it be spent to maintain existing services.

The voters would still make the ultimate decision when they approve or reject the ballot proposition.

Whether during a recession or in prosperous times, state law ought to allow the voters to decide rather than making the decision for them as though one rule suits us all.

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

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