Sometimes the most important battles in Olympia are the ones that never get fought, either because we lack the will or the wisdom to foresee the inevitable consequences... a political precept that has never been more true than with SB 5457, the emergency transit funding bill currently wending its way through the legislature.
"When do we fight?" Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle) asks rhetorically, in reference to the supermajority requirement attached to the senate version of the bill. (At least, I assume he's asking rhetorically, because I'm pretty sure that after nearly two years in the Democratic caucus, Carlyle should know by now that the answer is almost always "never.") SB 5457 would grant King County the authority to temporarily levy a $20 annual car tab fee in order to supplement declining sales tax revenue for Metro Transit, but only on a two-thirds majority vote of the King County Council. It's a precedent once set, Carlyle rightly worries, that will ultimately lead to the imposition of similar supermajority requirements on local governments throughout the state.
It is also a cowardly and dishonest provision.
See, the thing about such supermajority provisions is that they're not as much about making it difficult to pass a tax hike as they are about making it impossible. So if the Democratic senators who attached this amendment were to be completely forthright, they would've just voted no on the bill in the first place, rather than threatening to vote no should the amendment be removed. I mean, they clearly don't want King County to pass this tax increase, so why not just say so?
But the amendment is even more deceitful than it first appears, as the real reason many legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, don't want King County to pass this tax is because they want to keep us transportation hungry in anticipation of putting a statewide transportation package on the ballot in 2012. Such a measure cannot possibly pass without huge margins in King County, support that might soften should we be allowed to tax ourselves to take care of our own needs. Or so the thinking goes.
It's a bit of tactical maneuvering that's as insulting as it is ironic. This is a bill that has been narrowed in such a way that it only applies to King County (Pierce and Snohomish were included in the original draft), and legislators from the rest of the state are essentially saying "Fuck you no, you don't get to tax yourselves to pay for your own transit needs." Then they're going to count on us to provide the votes necessary to pass a statewide transportation measure that they're own constituents will vote against.
Aren't they clever?
Carlyle has been getting shit behind the scenes for potentially throwing a monkey-wrench into a bill King County desperately wants and needs. Word is that maybe they've got Republican Jane Hague's support on the council, so maybe they can meet the two-thirds threshold. And with a handful of senate Dems threatening to kill the bill if the amendment is stripped, Carlyle is being pressured to drop his opposition.
But I think Carlyle is right in that the long-term consequences from eroding our principles are potentially far worse than the short-term consequences that come from standing by them, and no principle is more fundamental to our democracy than that of majority rule. Over the past few years Metro has cut costs, reduced service and nearly doubled fares. And without this additional revenue they'll be forced to cut service by an additional 17 percent. But should this bill pass with the supermajority provision intact, the future cost to Metro and other local government agencies will far outstrip any short-term benefit a temporary, two-year, $20-per-vehicle revenue package can provide.
And if this bill does die, don't blame Carlyle for the Metro service cuts. Blame the senators who inserted this amendment for having cynically achieved the policy objective they had intended from the start.