No on Initiative 884: Big tax increase comes without real accountability

We all agree that providing a quality education system for our children is a top priority. We also all agree that the current system needs improvement to keep up with changing demographics and workforce demands.

What we disagree on is the solution provided by Initiative 884. The negative effects of raising the sales tax and the lack of accountability in the measure are too great to ignore.

Initiative 884 is a permanent, $1-billion-a-year sales tax increase. If enacted, it would raise the state sales tax rate from 6.5 percent to 7.5 percent, making it the highest rate in the country. When combined with local sales taxes, consumers across the state would pay almost 10 cents on every dollar. Neighboring Oregon has no sales tax and Idaho’s rate is 6 percent.

Raising the sales tax rate 15.4 percent would have a devastating effect on other priority issues:

* I-884 would drive consumers and the jobs that go with them over the border and to the Internet. A Washington Policy Center study estimates this increase will cause the loss of 10,000 jobs. We are slowly recovering from an economic recession and still have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. We should be concentrating on putting families back to work.

* I-884 would have a measurable effect on affordable housing. The sales tax is applied to equipment and supplies and on the labor that goes into construction. This increase would add $3,000-$5,000 to the cost of a private home. According to the National Association of Home Builders, every $1,000 increase in the price of a home squeezes 400 families out of the housing market. Forbes Magazine has already named Seattle as the “No. 1 Least Affordable City in the United States.”

* I-884 would have a negative effect on possible solutions for our pressing transportation needs. Raising the sales tax to fund Initiative 884 removes the option of local governments to ask voters to approve an increase in the same tax for priority road projects. Passage of I-884 would essentially doom future transportation proposals. At the same time, this increased tax would be applied to the equipment, materials and labor associated with the building of roads, raising the cost of projects we already cannot afford.

* I-884 would put the greatest burden on struggling families and fixed-income seniors when it is our duty to help those who cannot help themselves. According to the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy, Washington has the most regressive tax system in the country. Our poor and middle class citizens pay a higher share of their incomes to taxes than the rich and a general sales tax hike will increase this burden.

The accountability of Initiative 884 needs to be questioned. Even if passed, there is no way to guarantee more money will be spent for education. The initiative says current education money can’t be supplanted but it is unconstitutional to bind the Legislature to future spending. In the first two years after passage, an initiative can be amended by a supermajority vote of the Legislature. After two years, it can be amended by a simple majority vote. In 2003 the Legislature used this discretion and redirected funds of three initiatives (I-773, I-732, I-728). In fact, the average “shelf-life” of an initiative is only six years.

Initiative 884 makes the assumption that the only way to improve our education system is to provide more money but makes no effort to prove this will work. The language contains no reforms, no defined outcomes for programs, and no consequences for failure. It does not allow performance audits on new or existing programs.

We know education spending has steadily increased and we do not have corresponding increases in student achievement. Less than half of the $9,400 we currently provide to each K-12 student makes it to the classroom. Before asking for more money, we should focus on education reform, targeting money into programs that work and rewarding excellent teachers. Just spending more money without real accountability will not solve the problems.

Initiative 884 has served a valuable purpose by bringing the issues of education and the economy to the forefront of debate. We need to demand that they remain priorities and work together to find solutions to the increased demands on our schools and to help families as we recover from an economic recession. Imposing the largest tax increase in state history without accountability isn’t the solution. Vote no.

Jamie Daniels is the Washington director of the grassroots organization Citizens for a Sound Economy/FreedomWorks and the campaign coordinator for the League of Freedom Voters PAC.

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