Spending limits should be based on math, not magic

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)
K-12 Expenditures per $1000

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.


  1. 1

    james spews:

    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…

    This part of your statement I like!

  2. 2

    Don spews:

    Goldy, as one who voted FOR 601, I’d like to say that the problem with tying the spending cap to personal income is that the increased taxes that follow increased spending will not necessarily fall upon those with the increased income.

    We need to fix the tax structure first, then revisit how the spending cap is calculated. For the present, I think state spending needs to be restrained within the limits of what those who are actually paying for it can afford.

  3. 3

    Jon spews:

    “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.”

    Huh? What was I-695 and I-747, but voter approved “starving the beast”, not to mention that I-601 itself was passed by the voters? Don’t blame Republicans for measures that the voters went for themselves (while re-electing Democrats, go figure) and the lack of leadership that the Democrats (namely Gary Locke) have shown on the tax reform issue over the years.

    Furthermore, the Democrats run the show now, and they need to belly up to the bar and propose (and PASS) a tax reform plan to send to the voters. Ron Sims had the courage to propose something (and he lost for many other factors BTW, not his reform plan). Do I find the Republicans blameless? Not at all (I live in the Roachs’ district, Heaven help me), but they aren’t in charge.

  4. 4

    Don spews:

    Jon @ 3

    I agree that Democratic office holders bear responsibility for tackling tax reform. If they don’t do it, the GOPers sure as hell won’t.

  5. 6

    Rick spews:

    Why don’t all the whining liberals just come up with a special tax on themselves that will be dedicated solely to making up all the horrible shortfalls in state spending? That way, everybody will be happy.

  6. 8

    Chuck spews:

    You have missed the whole point Rick, it is the liberal way to tax YOU and make you pay so they can lean back on social programs with their hands out all the while telling you that you need to pay more….

  7. 9

    spyder spews:

    I can’t wait to hear the screaming on this one:
    Jimmy Carter to Head Commission Examining U.S. Election System

    March 25 (Bloomberg) — Former President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat and the 2002 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, will head a bipartisan commission to investigate the federal election system in the U.S. and recommend improvements.

    Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III, a Republican, will co-chair the Commission on Federal Election Reform, according to American University’s Center for Democracy and Election Management. Other members include former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat, and former House Minority Leader Bob Michel, a Republican.

    Carter and former President Gerald Ford headed a National Commission on Election Reform after the controversial 2000 presidential election. Their report led to the Help America Vote Act of 2002. The new group will look at how well that law was implemented and other voting issues including whether minorities are receiving their full voting rights.

    “I am concerned about the state of our electoral system and believe we need to improve it,” Carter said in a statement. “I have monitored elections from all over the world, and there is much we could learn from other democracies and from our own citizens.”

  8. 10

    jpgee spews:

    rick @ 6 and all the neocon rightwingnuts should do the same at the national level and ‘donate’ their entire lives to paying off the Texas Tacos fracaso in ruining our country

  9. 11

    John spews:

    Adriel @ 13

    Bye Bye then. Go back to (u)SP and gloat over how superior you are and how you put us all in our places/categories. Judging from Erik’s comments @ 11 they need your help – badly.

    We on the other hand won’t miss one of the most mean-spirited commenters on this board.

  10. 12

    Don spews:

    spyder @ 9

    Jimmy Carter has been monitoring elections in Third World countries for years, and is very experienced in this field. Now that America is a banana republic, why shouldn’t he monitor our elections too?

  11. 13

    bmvaughn spews:

    Goldy you’ve finally come around… math and statistics… they make for a good blog.

  12. 14

    Goldy spews:

    BM @13,

    Yeah, but judging from the number of comments in this thread, a rather boring blog.

    But see, there is a difference between what I’m doing with math and statistics, and what Stefan is doing. I’m reporting, he’s fabricating.

  13. 15

    jcricket spews:

    Goldy – Looks like Republicans, when they’re in charge, realize that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.


    Owens thus becomes another low-tax, limited-government advocate who has found those principles hard to hold onto amid a sluggish economy and a sharply diminished flow of federal money.

    In the past two years, Republican governors including Nevada’s Kenny Guinn, Idaho’s Dirk Kempthorne, Georgia’s Sonny Perdue and Ohio’s Bob Taft have dumped no-new-taxes pledges to push for major new revenue and increased state spending.

    And the main reason for states being forced to raise taxes?

    “Governors have to run programs like Medicaid, No Child Left Behind, homeland security,” said economist Bert Waisanen of the National Conference of State Legislatures. “But there is less and less money coming from Washington to pay the bills.”

    (emphasis added)

    The reason the red states get hit first is that the Republicans in charge have been enacting fiscally irresponsible tax cuts for years. Oh, and the Republican governors of these red states can’t blame the “Democrats in charge” for their situation.

    Personally, I welcome the “dismantling” of red states that have to default on their loans, a la Argentina. ;)

  14. 16

    RDC spews:


    Thanks for the tips on italics and bold. Now to try them….
    …it appears marriage is ours, for as long as we are able to stomeach it.. A clever comment, whether or not it was a play off Franklin’s words. If you haven’t looked it up, Franklin is said to have responded to a woman who asked him after the Constitutional Convention what kind of government they had created, he responded: “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

    I haven’t read the Dallas Morning News (isn’t that Molly Ivens home paper?) but can imagine that even the WSJ editorial page is more liberal than it.

    No philosophy major here. Long long ago, in a galaxy far far away, I studied a bit of history. Lots of reading and a good memory can create the illusion of having a depth of knowledge. Don’t let on to my wife, though. I still have her fooled. I think. Maybe.

    My opinion on Lebanon (not that you asked) has been that events in Iraq are almost entirely unrelated to what has happened recently in Lebanon. This opinion is based mostly on the history of that tormented land…remember when the phrase it looks like Beirut was used to describe any location characterized by disorder, including the bedrooms of many teenagers? Events in Lebanon over the past 35-40 years provide enough explanation of the unrest there now, without having to look elsewhere. The NYT has a piece on this in today’s paper, I think it the Week in Review section. Some there do think that Iraq has played an important role, but the article concludes that that is a minority opinion. Ditto the Israel-Palestinian developments. That scrambled mess has a life of its own, and in the past hasn’t seemed to have been influenced very much by what was happening elsewhere in the world. We are prone to drawing quick conclusions.

    Well, I am in my most religious moments an agnostic, but acknowledged Easter by listening to Mahler’s 2nd Symphony this a.m. Interesting that an Austrian Jew would have composed such a piece. No doubt there is an explanation that my reason has yet to discover.

  15. 17

    RDC spews:


    I’ll try this again…I typed a comment, pushed the magic button, and nothing happened. But I may have erred somehow. It wasn’t a post apt to be held up for any reason.

    Thanks for the tip on italics and bold. Getting there on my own would have required about the half-life of lead.

    ..it appears marriage is ours, for as long as we are able to stomach it…clever comment, whether or not it was a deliberate play on Ben’s words. The story is that when asked by a woman after the Constitutional Convention what kind of government they had created, he is said to have responded, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

    No philosophy major here. Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I studied a bit of history. Reading a lot and having a good memory helps create the illusion of having depth of knowledge. But don’t tell my wife. She thinks I’m very smart. I think. Maybe.

    Isn’t the Dallas Morning News the home paper of Molly Ivens, that crusty right-winger? I don’t know much about Texas, but from what I’ve heard, the populace there wouldn’t support a paper that didn’t have an editorial slant somewhat right of the WSJ editorial page. The majority of the populace, that is. Austin might not be a bad place to live.

    Are urinalysis tests for drugs now routine in the military?
    In Afghanistan, pollen from the poppies is probably enough to light up the indicator. Nothing new under the sun. To many Afghans, what’s going on now in that land probably comes across as just the latest chapter in “the Great Game.” Rudyard Kipling wrote a good book that touched on this and other cultural matters; a work of fiction now largely unread, “Kim”.

    I’m watching developments in Lebanon with an amateur historian’s interest. I don’t think that the turmoil in Iraq has much to do with events in Lebanon. An article in the NYT this morning quoted a couple of Lebanese who have the opposite view, but acknowledged that their’s is a minority opinion. A look at the country’s troubles over the last 35-40 years suggest that what is going on now could, and probably would, have occured if there were no American soldiers looking over their shoulders in the streets of Iraqi cities. Ditto for the Israeli-Palestinian torment. The troubles there seem to have a life independent of what goes on elsewhere in the world. Perhaps Iraq will have a liberalizing effect on the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. We shall see.

    Happy Easter. (Is that the right phrase?). The closest I to being religios is when I progress/regress to being a skeptical agnostic, but on Easter mornings I often listen to either Handel’s Messiah or to Mahler’s Second Symphony. This morning it was the latter. Interesting that an Austrian Jew would compose this piece of music. But no doubt there is much about Mahler than my reason has yet to discover.

  16. 18

    marks spews:


    Apologies, I have been a bit busy in my world. I had time to read and post a little here and there, over the weekend, but did not have time to fully look around.

    I have some obligations tonight which will keep me from doing justice to your post, but:

    “Are urinalysis tests for drugs now routine in the military?”

    Yes, since 1981 I think. In order to adjust for false positives, there is a high threshold set (punny, eh?).

    Now I remember the Franklin quote, thank you. Definately follows the same logic.

    Gotta go. My wife is waiting for me, for a change…

  17. 19

    RDC spews:

    I’m more interested in Lebanon and looking forward to the Final Four, but I understand that Michael Schiavo has requested an autopsy on his wife when she dies. Assuming the autopsy will reveal the problem she had was caused by her diet (probably her potassium level dropped too low) and not by her husband beating her on the head, I wonder if we will see any apologies from zapporo, chuck, anonymous, swatter, and other would be prosecuting attorneys on this site? Not likely. More likely they will say the coroner is a stooge.

    Speaking of history, I read something this morning that fit right in with my opinion of Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, I can’t remember which paper the information was in. Anyway, the statement was that Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed at the White House to do what solar panels do, and as an example to the country. When Reagan took office, he had they dismantled. Does this ring a bell? As long as I am picking on Reagan, I was very disturbed then and still am that he opened his political campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. That was either extraordinarily cynical on his part, or he was ignorant of the symbolism. My inclination is to believe the former.

  18. 20

    marks spews:

    I am no expert in Middle East history, as the Ottoman Empire was not one I studied extensively. I will attempt to put what I remember into this, and you can decide whether I know enough about it to comment on it…

    Does Israel belong in Palestine? Yes, they do belong there in the present tense. Were it 1947, perhaps that could have been properly addressed, but I think one needs to go further back than that, to the Treaty of Versailles (more specifically: Treaty of Sevres, which were the terms for the Turks that divided their Empire). Were I to make a judgment on whether Israel truly belongs there, I would say, in hindsight, no. That said, what of the displaced surviving Jews of Europe and Russia and elsewhere? I would not want to live among the nations who allowed genocide against my race. The decision was made, right or wrong…

    Unfortunately, we have only the present to attempt some sort of workable solution. I hope it does not involve military action on the part of anyone, though that is likely a fool’s hope as violence has been a part of that area for millennia, and usually under the flag of one religion or another. I doubt we will want to have much more to do militarily in that region, as 1983 and present day Iraq should give us all something to think about in that regard.

    The factions fighting in Lebanon are seemingly an amorphous bunch if you just take it from the news reports I read or see on TV, but that is not true. They are the present-day extensions of the sides that began the Lebanese civil war in the 70s and continue the drive for dominance of the region. Syria saw self interest in moving in, and that move has served them well for all these years. In the end, though, reality (as I see it) suggests that the influence of Syria has actually been the amorphous factor. Hizballah continues to work towards their own aims, and Syria under Bashir Al-Assad will remain unable to corral them, IMO. I wonder if the PLO will?

    As to Reagan, his actions were to make it into the White House, and once in he had to lead. Some of his actions were wrong while others were not. I look to the successes of that time as a testament to his character. The failures of his administration are a testament that even the best intentions can lead you down the road to hell (Iran/Contra and the contravention of Congress), and further prove that a mere mortal cannot always make the right decisions, nor trust others to make them for you. A weird but true fact: Admiral Poindexter was the USN Captain who endorsed my father’s successful bid to become a limited duty officer in the mid 1970s. My dad was deeply disappointed over the Iran/Contra affair.

    My own marriage is interracial, as is my older sister’s. Here in Texas I thought it would be a bad thing, but we have not been harassed or discriminated against. Perhaps if we were in a less populated area like Philadelphia, Mississippi. That was the place where the infamous “Mississippi Burning” incident happened, right?

    If I had been thinking in wishing a Happy Easter (thank you for the sentiment), I would have wished those who do not observe it a Happy Sunday. Who you looking at to win the Final Four?

    Glad I could help with the HTML. It can be effective in making a point or separating quotes. The problem is when I forget a close, and everything goes bold…

    I would be remiss if I did not say that the coroner is a stooge…

  19. 21

    RDC spews:

    More tonight…just wanted to point out a good op-ed piece by John Danforth in today’s NYT. Discusses the merging of religion and Republican politics/policy.

  20. 22

    marks spews:

    That seems quite the topic lately. Try the Democratic efforts to woo the Catholic vote.

    It is a pdf file, so you need Acrobat Reader.

    Based on that, I would say Catholics like me are relatively progressive.

    Reverend Senator Danforth is correct on most points. I have been doing some thought on the embryonic stem cell controversy. I still have moral qualms if the research extends into producing a living, breathing humanoid form, whether cloned or simply produced in order to test genetic engineering theories. May be too much for me to think about, but I am trying to muddle through my upbringing on basic life concepts.

  21. 23

    RDC spews:

    I was rebuffed when I tried to get on HA last night; I hope it wasn’t anything I said. Before I say anything else, let’s move this OT to Reverend Falwell. I’ll look for you there.

    In no particular order…I looked at your link to Catholics and Democrats. I read enough to get the gist. My preference would be for the DNC to stop trying to placate every conceivable constituency. In the very best of times for Democrats (or Republicans) at least 40 out of 100 voters are going to go for the other side. Focus on the really important issues and be consistent, within reason, on those. Then be flexible on the rest. Speaking of Catholics, as you have on several occasions, my wife is a Catholic in remission. She still favors the Church over Protestant denominations because the Catholic Church produces better theatre. I agree with her. The televangelists certainly are putting on theatre, but it isn’t very good.

    Since when was knowledge any requisite for commenting on anything on a blog, particularly on the middle east? You know more than most people I speak with know. The Israel-Palestine situation is like the situation in Manhattan. The Europeans stole the island from the locals; the Jews stole Palestine from the Palestinians. But both are water under the bridge, or over the dam, or wherever water goes. The US is not going to give Manhattan back to the Indians, and Israel is not going to give land back to the Palestinians. Or one might say with some truth that the Israelis are not going to give Manhattan back to the Indians and the U.S. is not going to give Palestine back to the Palestinians. Of course I’m bothered by the troubles there, but also troubling is the nearly completely one-sided view Americans get from our press and politicians.

    You are right on about Lebanon. Syria kept a tenuous peace there by keeping the factions from killing each other. But I believe Lebanon is a containable powderkeg. If the US, Israel, and Europe stay out of the fray, other than to keep the Iranians from meddling, I don’t see troubles there igniting the whole region. Not so though for Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt. One of the reasons I opposed the US action in Iraq was because it was too much of a gamble. The risk was, and still remains, that the war could set off unrest throughout the region, and that could prove catastrophic to the world economy. Imagine a major disruption in oil flow from Saudi Arabia.

    Stem cell research. Clones to use for genetic engineering experiments is a big leap from cloning embryos. I know of no one advocating such a thing, but still, that sounds like a very good reason for the government to be very much involved in the process, even when the process is privately funded. Embryonic stem cell research is already happening, and is likely to continue unless it proves fruitless. Which brings up religion and science. I think that some part of the Catholic and other churches opposition to stem cell research, birth control, perhaps even abortion, comes not from deeply held spiritual beliefs, but from a recognition within what I will call the Organized Church that science and empirical knowledge may ultimately bring about its downfall. Science is the enemy of the Organized Church. It always has been. The two co-exist, but not peacefully. Of course, it is not only the Christian Church that fears science and rationality. I’ve heard the phrase “Post-Christian era” used to describe present day Europe. The fear of that kind of thinking spreading may be in part responsible for the anti-liberal energy coming out of the Organized Church today.

    Reagan…yes, Philadelphia, Mississippi was where the three civil rights workers were murdered, and the murderers left unpunished until very recently. Reagan was obviously signally the worst element of the South that he was on their side. That alone should be enough to keep his historical stature somewhat below average for a two term president, which is where I think it will eventually be anyway. Reagan and Clinton were two major disappointments, but I can forgive Clinton’s sins much more easily than Reagans.

    Sometimes a body just needs to ramble. Next time, I promise to be more circumspect in my remarks (and more organized). I do want to exchange views on race and culture.