Imagine writing that long-awaited final check to pay off your mortgage. That night you have a mortgage-burning party and all your friends show up to cheer the milestone, toast the fiscal discipline you’ve shown through the many years and speculate with you about how you’ll spend the thousand or so new dollars you’ll have every month from now on.
The next day, your banker calls and says: “So, how about you keep sending me that money every month, I’ll make you a new loan for $200,000 and you can come up with some other way to spend the money?” We suspect your answer might begin with an expletive not-so-deleted. And we wouldn’t blame you one bit.
That’s essentially what’s happening in the Legislature this year with House Bill 1997. It has to do with taxes in King County, but there is one great lesson to be learned by all taxpayers and governments throughout the state. That lesson is amazingly simple: Governments must keep promises made to taxpayers. One of those promises was made in 1995. King County was allowed to increase sales taxes to pay for Safeco Field. According to The Seattle Times, those taxes are scheduled to expire later this year when the bonds are paid off. But HB 1997 would extend some of the taxes to pay for arts, culture, work force housing, tourism projects and expanding the Washington State Convention & Trade Center.
The Times editorially opposes this proposal, and correctly so in our view. A Sunday editorial in the newspaper notes that “our leaders need to grasp the importance of keeping promises. … Continuing these taxes in any economic climate is bad faith, but more troubling in the current one.”
Here’s why this story has local application. Promises must be kept here, too. One that’s making the rounds pertains to bridge tolls. The Columbian agrees with most elected officials that tolls will be necessary to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge. But we also fervently believe that this long-term commitment — essentially a user fee — must have a specific shelf life. And when the debt dies, so should the tolls. This is exactly what happened with construction of each of the two current spans of the I-5 Bridge.
Public trust in government is at great risk as we all try to move beyond the economic recession. Lack of trust likely drove many voters last year to overwhelmingly reject a proposed state income tax. Too many of them just didn’t believe the tax rate would not grow. And once a revenue stream is about to lose its shelf life, some politicians become pathologically resistant to turning off the spigot. Such is the affliction of state Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, sponsor of HB 1997, which would break a promise. We’re glad to report that no Clark County legislator is listed among the bill’s sponsors.
But the bill bears close watching by taxpayers in Southwest Washington. If it passes, then the promise made when the need for Safeco Field was presented will be broken.
And then, the vital public trust will erode a little bit more.
Let’s not dismiss the need for public funding of public projects, nor should we ignore government’s capacity to keep promises. In fact, if those stadium-related taxes expire next year as projected, it will happen four years ahead of schedule. That would turn a good promise into a great promise.
The Times prophesied: “Safeco Field generated a lot of animosity when it was built because of a frenzy of a ballot measure followed by a legislative emergency to build the stadium. The best way to rebuild public confidence is to fulfill the promise made.”
If and when that happens, taxpayers will find it much easier to accept other promises elsewhere in the state. A mortgage-burning should be a celebration, not a green light for extended debt.