Sunday, October 15, 2006

Local Politics: Lies, Damn Lies, and Initiatives

So, the initiative process in Washington State was set up a method of allowing more direct access to government by the people. For many, many years, it was considered to lawmaking what the public access channel is to cable - strange but generally harmless. But now that huge amounts of cash can be directed through these initiatives, they have become yet another avenue for the wealthy and the corporate to steer the state, without having to worry about that meddlesome legislature.

There are three initiatives currently on the ballot this fall. Two of them are the wealthy trying to manipulate the less-wealthy to the advantage of the wealthy, but all three deal in deception.

Let's start out with I-920, which will get rid of the estate tax, a bothersome nuisance to the half-a-percentage point of estates that are large enough to qualify. Unfortunately, the people with these estates have money, which they will cheerfully pour into this campaign, using such megaphones as the Seattle Times (whose owner, being among the wealthy, is apparently determined not to die until he gets the tax repealed).

And so there is a lot a noise about how unfair this tax which hits the rich (which affects about 250 households a year) is to the little guy. Yep, you. About how it is horrible for family farms (in reality - family farms are exempt from the current estate tax). How it is horrible for small business (the definition of small business is rather large). How it punishes the wealthy unfairly (it does not tax the first 4 million of the estate. Let me say that again. First Four Million) and how it really is a nuisance tax (to the wealthy, perhaps - the tax provides about $100 million, which is directed to the school systems).

There is a lot of smoke about this one, but the bottom line is - feel free to vote for this initiative if your full-time accountant tells you it will work for you. You don't have an full-time accountant? Then you might want to vote no on this.

But actually, that's not the most odious and loathsome initiative on the ballot this year. That honor belongs to I-933, which basically states that if you can't develop your property because of regulation, the government must either reimburse you for the loss of value or waive the regulation holding you down. Funded heavily by out-of-state developers and supported by the Washington State Grange, the idea is that if you want to put in a subdivision, or a strip mine, or a hog farm on your property, and those nasty little regulations keep you from doing it, then you should be paid for not building it as if you had built it.

And like the anti-estate tax loons, the anti-regulation guys pitch I-933 as being a good thing for you, the little guy. How dare the government tell you what you can and cannot do with you land. Of course, the flip side is that the same laws that keep you from putting a dozen homes on your two acre lot also keeps your neighbor from putting a dozen homes on HIS two acre lot. A similar law was passed down in Oregon, and since then the state has seen a combination of outrageous development (strip mines in state forests) and a huge cash drain (about four billion with a b and counting). Plus the fact the initiative is so badly worded, that would be a field day for lawyers (and don't count on the State Supreme Court tossing it out - the developer-friendly BIAW has been working on packing the bench for years now).

Yeah, this is a hit-yourself-in-the-head initiative, which depends on you, the little guy, being really, really, really stupid. Vote yes on this only if you're planning on selling your property and moving to another state that has saner controls on property.

Finally, there is I-937, which will require utility companies to hit target numbers of energy conservation and use of renewable energy resources. It feels like the type of initiative that the system was put in place to enable - broad-support that should benefit the community in the long term. Cost (according to the Fiscal Impact Statement), is about $167,000/year over 14 years - a drop in the bucket compared to the other two give-aways. And similar bills in other states (like Colorado) have produced savings over the long term.

Here's the deceit, though. This is a wind-power bill. Doesn't say it, but it is. Hydro is excluded, geothermal is not sufficiently online (odd, given our location in volcanic territory), and similarly solar is undermanned (and before you make the always-cloudy joke, we have a lot of clear skies east of the Cascades, thank you). I'm a fan of wind power, ever since I first saw turbines dotting the hillsides overlooking Oakland, and I think its a viable option we should encourage. But just so you know - this is about wind.

So three Initiatives - two of the insanely bad (so vote no on I-922 and I-930), one with good intentions (I-937). Welcome to the vox populi of the initiative system.

More later,