By John Carlson
In 1992, Democrats swept to power in both Olympia and Washington, D.C.
A popular young liberal president with commanding majorities in both houses of Congress set out to reform health care. And closer to home the Democratic governor enjoyed expanded majorities in the Legislature. Republicans were divided, out of touch and facing longtime decline.
Then the Democrats started governing and things changed. Polls showed that Americans weren’t comfortable with the leftward march of the federal government, especially the “Hillary-care” health care plan. In Washington state, people quickly lost patience with the tax and spending agenda of the Mike Lowry administration.
Voter revolt followed. Just a year after the 1992 election, several initiatives qualified for the ballot, including Initiative 601,which would restrict the growth of state spending to the rise in population plus the inflation growth. Despite a well-financed campaign against it, 601 passed. And despite dire predictions that it would strangle the government’s ability to provide basic services, spending continued to increase, though at a smaller clip than before. The state was put on a diet.
Over the next 10 years, legislators chipped away at 601, eventually rendering it all but useless. Olympia went off its diet and the government soon looked like, well, like someone who’s gone off his diet. Less than five years ago, the budget was growing three times faster than inflation, setting us up for the mother of all deficits when the economy cooled. That is precisely what happened. Even with a federal bailout, the state is still more than $1 billion dollars in the red. Once again, the people are angry.
And 601 is back again. Only this time it’s called Initiative 1033. Anti-1033 ads call it “The Tim Eyman initiative” because of Eyman’s low favorability rating (he’s almost as unpopular with the public as the legislature).
1033 does much of what 601 did, except it refunds any surplus above the revenue limit into property tax relief and it applies the limit not just to Olympia, but to counties and cities as well. Early polls showed it ahead by nearly 30 percentage points. Is anyone surprised?
Critics warn that the initiative will do…well, what the critics warned us 601 would do back in the early ‘90s. These critics are overlooking a salient point: Olympia and King County are in the financial ditch precisely because they abandoned spending control. They refused to apply the brake. The public is now going to do it for them.
Are there problems with the initiative? Yes, but I’m voting for it anyway. The initiative uses the current government budget as a baseline for future increases, even though the budgets are lower than expected because of the recession (it took a recession to get them to slow down the spending).
The Seattle Times warns that 1033 would eventually means higher tuition at state colleges (aren’t they doing that already?) and larger class sizes in school. Yes it would, as long as state government keeps doing what they’re doing the way they’re currently doing it. But if most people believe the government is inefficient, why keep subsidizing business as usual? Less spending growth can either bring on cuts, or it can spur reform of the status quo.
My guess is that within a decade, Olympia will find a way to dilute 1033, just as they did 601. But until then, the government will have to live within its means, which it clearly hasn’t been doing.