While dismissed by some as another of Tim Eyman’s anti-tax initiatives, at its core Initiative 1125 is really about three very important principles of governance. The initiative’s main thrust is not whether this tax or that is raised, but about the relationship of citizen to State in regards to transportation funding.
The system of providing and maintaining our State’s roads has from the beginning been modeled after that used by public utilities. The citizen pays user fees, in the form of gas taxes, tolls and registration fees, and receives the construction and maintenance of State roads in return. The first principle that 1125 addresses is the use of transportation revenues for purposes not related to our State’s highways. When the State diverts highway funds to the General Fund (directly or through gimmicks like charging sales tax on road construction) it is breaking that contract with the citizen-users. Likewise, this compact is broken when highway funds are spent on mass transit or bike paths, subsidizing things that are actually in competition with the highway system that the citizens have agreed to fund with their gas taxes. A good analogy would be if the local public electric power company was chronically short of funds, but used revenues to feed the hungry, or to provide subsidies to customers wanting to convert to natural gas. Regardless of the value of these actions, they should be outside the scope of authority for that government agency.
There is a second principle that 1125 seeks to enforce, that deals with equity of projects within the State. While all citizens pay the same State gas tax, and receive roughly the same value of road construction and maintenance, at times there are extremely large projects that are difficult to fund and benefit just one specific area. Tolls are legitimately used to increase the revenue available for these projects as well as to distribute the expense to those deriving the greatest benefit. But if tolls are imposed on already completed projects simply as a way to enhance total revenues, one set of drivers are being asked to pay twice for the same road, in order to benefit a different set of drivers. Using the power company analogy again, it’s like having another hook-up fee imposed on you in order to fund an expansion on the other side of town.
The third principle is one that dates to before the founding of our Republic: No taxation without representation. Initiative 1125 seeks to prevent the Legislature from granting the power to implement and raise tolls (a tax) to unelected commissions. If your legislators or Governor raise taxes against your wishes, you can vote them out of office. How do you respond to unpopular actions by bureaucrats who may have been appointed by someone no longer in office?
Now some may argue that these three principles are not hard and fast, set-in-concrete rules, that modern circumstances require a little flexibility, or that, as they say in the Pirates of the Caribbean, they are “more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” But there are real-life consequences to ignoring these principles. An agency that acts outside its core mission will usually spend the money inefficiently, and suffer from both a lack of focus and accountability in performing their main function as a result. When the connection between who is paying for the service and who is benefiting from it is weakened, effective cost-benefit analysis goes out the window. And an electorate that feels powerless to affect some taxation will often react by rejecting out of hand those taxes they can influence.
We can see evidence of all these problems currently. Although the State’s gas tax and spending has risen dramatically in recent years, the State still seems to struggle to simply maintain our existing highways. Small projects become expensive and large projects unaffordable. Over $150 million has been spent just planning the replacement of the 520 Bridge, which only cost $153 million (in 2011 dollars) fifty years ago. Just building a 2 mile tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Downtown Seattle will carry a price tag of over $4 billion (before cost overruns). If so much is to be spent for such a short section of road, will there be any money left to maintain the many thousands of other miles of state highways? Mass transit in the Puget Sound area operates with massive subsidies, to the point that it would be almost as cost effective to give train commuters executive helicopter trips or downtown condos rather than cheap train rides. The Sound Transit boondoggle has become an unstoppable juggernaut, since the appointees running the system have no direct accountability to the voters.
Passing 1125 is essential to begin reining in Washington State’s out-of-control taxing and spending, to force the State to return to its original arrangement with the drivers of Washington: To maintain a safe and cost-effective highway system using the revenues approved by the voters.
[photo credit: WSDOT]