Okay, I’ve heard enough bellyaching already from editorialists whining about legislation to amend Initiative 601′s spending limits. Passed in 1993, I-601 uses population growth plus inflation to calculate increases in the state spending cap; any spending above the limit requires a two-thirds vote in both houses.
In practice, it only takes a simple majority to amend or suspend I-601 (as has been done in the past,) and thus the super majority provision is utterly toothless — not to mention, undemocratic. And it has probably always been unconstitutional to boot, as only the state Constitution can dictate the majorities required to pass legislation. Complain all you want about removing this provision, but if you really want to require a super majority vote, you need to do it by constitutional amendment.
Yesterday the Tacoma News Tribune chimed in, criticizing SB 6078 for seeking to change the way the cap is calculated (the new formula would link growth in spending to growth in personal income): “Gutting I-601 spending limits a bad idea.”
Gutting? Gimme a break.
As has been explained by the Gates Commission, and nearly every reputable expert on these issues, the economic metric that most close tracks growth in demand for public services is aggregate growth in personal income. This is because most government services are commodities, and like most commodities, consumption increases with income. (Hey… that’s free market economics for you.) As the TNT points out, a growth in personal income calculation would indeed result in a higher spending cap than the current formula.
But to continue to impose a spending limit calculated on population plus inflation, is to ensure that over the long run, government services simply cannot keep pace with demand. And that is exactly what has happened since I-601 passed in 1993: expenditures as a percentage of personal income have declined steadily. And with non-discretionary spending like health care rising much faster than inflation — and thus eating up a larger portion of the budget — the impact of the spending limit is exaggerated on essential services like K-12 education.
K-12 Expenditures per $1,000 Personal Income
(State & Local Government)
In fiscal year 2002, Washington ranked 41st among states in state and local government K-12 spending as a percentage of personal income, down from 36th in 2000. As long as we continue to rely on a structurally inadequate tax system, and tie our spending limits to unrealistic economic metrics, we can expect the level of essential services to continue to decline.
I’m a big proponent of balanced budgets, and I’m not necessarily opposed to spending limits as a guideline for writing them. Indeed, I’m a helluva lot more fiscally conservative than most of my righty critics would imagine (or my liberal cohorts might like.) But my main complaint with I-601′s spending limits calculation, is that like our current tax structure, when projected out into the future, it guarantees that we will have a smaller and smaller government providing fewer and fewer services… without ever asking voters if this is what they truly want!
I welcome a knock-down, drag ‘em out, no holds barred public debate on the proper size and scope of government, because I believe that most voters want safer streets, better schools, and all the other essential services that government provides. But the Republican leadership refuses to talk about the real issues, because they understand that the status quo will eventually produce their libertarian dystopia, without debate, if only they show a little patience.
Attacking SB 6078 as “gutting” I-601, ignores the whole purpose of imposing spending limits in the first place. I-601 was not intended to shrink the government, it was intended to keep government growth in line with our economy… and to this end the limit factor should reflect an accurate economic metric. It’s simple math.
To support the current formula is to support the Republican effort to dramatically shrink government by “starving the beast,” a disingenuous strategy to impose a radical vision of government they couldn’t possibly win at the polls. It is a stunningly clever act of political legerdemain, that distracts the eye by focusing exclusively on taxes, while ignoring the services they finance. Then, while voters aren’t looking, tada… government services disappear.
But there’s nothing magical about I-601′s population plus inflation calculation; it simply does not allow our government to keep pace with the growing demands of our growing economy, and thus necessarily results in diminished services over time.
Math may not be as entertaining as magic… but it’s a damn more reliable way to predict the future.