It’s time to muster some real initiative

Something about Thanksgiving made us think of Tim Eyman.

Must’ve been the turkey.

As we were picking up our birds this week, the irrepressible Eyman handed us another gobbler in the form of his 2002 tax-cutting initiative, and the promise that he would churn out a new measure every year.

We dislike Eyman’s initiatives principally because they appeal to the worst in all of us – distrust, resentment and self-interest. Portraying government as the enemy, he has managed to convince voters that they are overtaxed by wastrels in a system corrupted beyond remedy at the ballot box.

When he offers voters with that mind-set an opportunity to cut their own taxes, they accept.

While it might be tempting to conclude that citizens want “less government,” there’s little support for that argument.

To the contrary, voters have passed initiatives to boost school spending, and most recently decided to make in-home health care a state function.

Throwing an economic downturn into the picture of cut-taxes/boost-service demands has created a train-wreck scenario. The latest projections show a state revenue shortfall of between $800 million and $1.5 billion for 2002, more than enough to wipe out the remaining reserve funds that have been used to forestall major service cuts.

So even before it addresses unmet needs such as transportation, the next legislature faces some exquisitely difficult choices – service cuts or tax increases, both of which the voters have said they don’t want.

What the state desperately needs at this point is some genuine initiative – not simply Eymanesque nay-saying, but constructive, long-term solutions. Elected and electorate need to find a way to engage in meaningful, substantive and respectful dialog. And the institutions of citizen initiative and referendum might even play a vital role.

On the expense side, there must be a dialog that will either end government’s oft-cited “waste and mismanagement,” or refute the perception that tax dollars are poorly used.

Why not put together a blue-ribbon commission to suggest spending cuts, headed by a “waste is rampant” figure like former gubernatorial candidate John Carlson? Publicize the commission’s report – which, in the right hands, might even include a look at tax break “giveaways” for big business – and decide, by initiative or referendum if necessary, which recommendations to adopt.

Then, once we’ve done our waste-hunting, we need to take a comprehensive and serious look at revenues – asking not whether to pay, but how.

The basic revenue concepts should also go to the voters, not as “yes-no” questions but as “either-or” choices.

Someday, Washington voters ought to get another look at a revenue-neutral personal income tax, to curb the reliance on regressive property taxes and other scattershot revenue mechanisms now in place.

Eyman is right in sensing that voters feel ignored. It will take some real initiative to harness that frustration in a constructive way.

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