CARLSON: Several reasons for public’s mistrust

  • Monday, January 18, 2010 5:55pm
  • Opinion

By John Carlson

There is a mood developing – you can almost feel it – of increasing anger toward government borne of mistrust. It’s not just about taxes, spending, deficits and debt. It’s about people in both parties and even no party looking at their federal, state and sometimes local government and saying: “I don’t trust you anymore.”

The health care monstrosity in Congress is one example, the latest disclosure being that a 40 percent tax on high-end health insurance plans provided by employers will be waived for union members. So if Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones have the same health plan but Mr. Smith belongs to a union, his plan isn’t taxed, but Mr. Jones’ plan is. Naturally, the incentive will be for the employer to reduce Mr. Jones’ highly-taxed health benefits, or for Mr. Jones to support the unionization of his company.

Do the union leaders who are high-fiving each other over this legislative triumph have any idea how corrupt it looks to the average American?

Another reason for voter mistrust, much closer to home, is how local governments take advantage of state law to seize people’s property.

The principle of eminent domain allows the government to require someone to sell his or her property for public “use,” like a road or public school. Half a century ago, the Legislature passed the Urban Renewal Law (since renamed the Community Renewal Law) to sweep away slums and blighted areas that were a threat to people’s safety and surrounding property values. But over time, local governments have used this law to declare perfectly good neighborhoods “blighted” in the hope of encouraging high-end development that would generate more tax revenue.

Private developments may have public consequences (more retail and office space, more money from taxes), but they are fundamentally different from a highway or a fire station. But here is how local governments are using eminent domain in this state:

Since 2000, according to a just-released report by the Washington Policy Center (disclosure: I co-founded WPC 25 years ago and once served as its president), the homes and businesses and land belonging to more than 48,000 people in this state have been transferred by government edict to private developers. In Auburn, popular downtown businesses like The Mecca, The Rail and the Main Street Pub, were forced to close to make room for upscale development about three years ago. But the recession hit, the development stalled and all these popular businesses remain boarded up and shuttered.

In Bremerton back in 2002, some older but perfectly safe and livable homes were declared “obsolete for today’s market” and ordered sold so more expensive homes with water views could be built.

In Tukwila, the city used the threat of eminent domain to force the owners of a car wash and a parking lot to sell to private developers to “maximize opportunity for private enterprise.”

That’s kind of like the government forcing you to sell your home at existing market rates so a developer can build a nicer home in its place.

So wide is the loophole allowing government to do this, that the city of Medina could technically redraw their community renewal plan and declare all houses on the shores of Lake Washington, including Bill Gates’ home, as “blighted.”

To his credit, Attorney General Rob McKenna is pushing a bill this legislative session (Senate Bill 6200 and House Bill 2425) to prohibit the use of eminent domain for economic development. He shouldn’t have to do this because local governments should respect people’s property rights in the first place.

But often they don’t, which is one more reason why reasonable people don’t trust their government.

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