Tax ‘reform’ clouds local planning

It’s tough to hit a moving target.

Several local public agencies have been under the cloud

of that truism as they try to plan rationally for the future.

Bainbridge park commissioners this week may resolve the question of whether to seek “metropolitan” park district status, to escape their two-year, do-or-die special levy cycle and establish a base levy to fund park operations and maintenance. Fire commissioners, meanwhile, decided last week to put a

10 percent property tax “lid lift” on the May 18 ballot; the move follows several meetings’ worth of debate over the relative merits of lid lifts versus new user fees and special levies, and which of those options might be, in the new parlance of public planning, “Eyman-proof.”

Note the reference to the state’s foremost anti-tax demagogue. Prominent in discussions within all of our local public agencies has been the likely effect of Initiative 864, for which anti-tax

interests are beating the shrubs for pigeons willing to sign petitions or contribute money en route to the November general ballot. As represented on the campaign’s web site, the initiative would take 25 percent off the top of property taxes levied at the local and county level. Affected agencies would include cities, counties and their roads programs, fire districts, libraries, ports – any government entity that hasn’t received explicit voter mandate to collect taxes at a specific rate. School and non-metropolitan park districts – and therein lies the dilemma for Bainbridge park officials, as they decide their safest funding route – apparently would be exempt, to the extent that their M&O and capital levies are explicitly approved at the ballot box.

That said, the effects of Initiative 864 have been the subject of considerable debate, and are probably unknowable until tested in the courts. As far as funding loss goes, the current estimate from the state Department of Revenue is $426 million in tax revenues statewide in 2005. How agencies ought to compensate is, as usual, left unaddressed by the initiative sponsors.

And as to how our local public agencies should do their planning today, the emerging wisdom is: Take your best guess and go for it. Don’t try to strategize around anti-tax initiatives, because you never really know what’s next to come down the pike anyway.

That became wholly apparent this week, when the anti-tax crowd announced plans for still another initiative, this one to slash the state’s portion of the property tax as well. Yet the absurdity of their underlying theme – that cutting taxes will be painless – was betrayed almost immediately, as sponsors announced that any revenue shortfall should be made up for by the expansion of non-tribal gambling around the state.

Is this how we’re to fund our essential services, how low our sense of civic obligation has fallen? Should we have video poker machines lining the City Hall concourse, a few craps tables at the fire hall, off-track betting through the park district office? If the zeal to cut taxes now wallows happily with the seediness of organized gambling, this state has no future worth contemplating.

Better that we maintain some civic pride, and take aim at the

initiatives themselves.

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