07 January, 2011

Legislative accountability? Or getting things right? Which is more important?

Tim Eyman (along with a couple of independent groups) is going to fight the tolls being imposed on SR-520. The grounds for the battle are that the recently passed Initiative 1053 dictates that any new "fees" be voted on by the legislature. The proposed toll, Eyman argues, is a fee (I'd prefer to call it a "tax" but we're splitting hairs). Therefore, the Transportation Commission should not have the power to impose the toll on their own.

It's an interesting quandary, actually. For starters, I am not a fan of Tim Eyman. I don't understand why he's so popular, except for the fact that he repeatedly promises people they'll pay less if they support his initiatives and, since people are inherently selfish, they find his ideas appealing. I also am not entirely sure why he bounced back so gloriously from the illegal activities he engaged in previously (diverting money to himself from funds raised). But there you have it with Eyman.

The thing that is interesting to me is that I see his point here. Why should taxes be imposed with no vote? There are a few reasons for this: (1) The will of the people is not considered (I'll come back to that one), and (2) Our legislature gets to skip-out on accountability for such taxes.

The second item above is the one that bothers me. The legislators obviously know that to fund the SR-520 project, we either need to raise taxes (somewhere, e.g. toll imposition) or cut elsewhere in the budget (I don't think state governments have the same luxury of running massive deficits like the federal government does). The legislators who would oppose the toll would anger people whose services are ultimately cut. Conversely, the legislators who favor the toll would anger people who don't want to pay a toll. One can argue that they should at least have to take a stance, and not think purely about their next election bid.

The first item... well, that's one over which we can have a philosophical argument from now until the end of time. The question really is: Should we honor the will of the people, regardless of whether people know what's best for them or not? I'm not calling the average voter stupid. But I do think the average voter (often, myself included) thinks short-term and in their own self-interest. The beauty of democracy is that the will of the people is upheld. But the seedy underbelly of democracy is also just that: the will of the people is upheld.

People would call me socialistic, if I assert that it's better for a Commission to decide what must be done, for the good of all. But perhaps that's what is needed. At the federal level, the will of the people is required in every budget decision (with the exception of certain military appropriations, in case of emergency). However, some decisions are handled by the courts. A commission, is not unlike a court, but it's operating around a territory that overlaps with legislative areas. That's not that much different from the way that ballot initiatives are now overlapping with decisions that would typically be made by the courts (i.e. gay marriage, assisted suicide, etc.). We do not run our government in absolutes division of responsibility. There is crosstalk between branches. I'm not exactly sure what branch of the "government" the Transportation Commission belongs to? I am guessing it's probably Executive? Or is it not even part of the government? I'm out of my depth here.

The right thing to do here, given the situation we have, is to impose the toll. As I said below, I'd rather see the toll go on I-90 and SR-520, or for them to at least act quickly to toll I-90 if it clearly becomes a traffic nightmare. But it does bother me a little bit that our legislature doesn't have any accountability in this decision (as of yet).

Of course, if you want to know what I think would have really been the right thing to do, it would have been the damn income tax. Given that Washington has the single most regressive tax policy in the entire country (yet we're supposedly a liberal state), I think it should have been a no-brainer. And it should definitely have not appeared as a ballot initiative, for the reasons I mentioned above.

I guess we're back to me sounding like a socialist again.

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