Election 2012: More Budget Gridlock

A couple items on this ballot involve taxes and debts. While I would not normally oppose Resolution 8221 to reduce the amount of debt Washington holds, it is on the ballot with Initiative 1185 which is yet another measure to require a super majority to raise state revenues. The idea of further restricting the state’s ability to raise money at the same time as we reduce its ability to hold debt strikes me as absurd.

The proposed laws

The voters of Washington have repeatedly approved 2/3 majority requirements for tax increases. Due to the way the state initiative process works, the legislature can, by a simple majority, remove the previously passed 2/3 majority requirement in 2013 (it was passed in 2010 and the legislature cannot amend it for two years). Initiative 1185 would enforce that 2/3 majority for at least another two years. It also redefines what “raises taxes” means to include “any action or combination of actions by the state legislature that increases state tax revenue deposited in any fund, budget, or account, regardless of whether the revenues are deposited into the general fund.” This clause intends to restrict the legislature’s ability to use alternate revenue-raising strategies such as reducing tax deductions.

The debt limit resolution is fairly complicated in the particulars, but overall it lowers the percentage of state revenues that can be used to service debt from 9% down to 8.5% in 2014 and eventually down to 8% in 2034. It also changes the manner in which total state revenues are calculated to include property taxes (the funds are devoted solely to education) and to require an averaging over the previous six years instead of only three.

Vote no

I oppose super majority requirements to raise taxes, at least in the absence of super majority requirements to do pass other legislation. It allows minorities to block useful revenue improvements while allowing a simple majority to pass laws that may affect how much money the state needs to spend. In Washington the super majority requirement is particularly pernicious. Since we don’t have an income tax, the state is much more heavily dependent on sales tax revenue which more dramatically changes during economic downturns — and for more than a decade Washington has been showing an overall decline entirely unrelated to recessions. Thus even in the absence of actual population-adjusted spending increases, the state has been short on revenue for several years running. This has forced repeated budget cuts.

The debt limit resolution was actually planned and passed by the state legislature in a bipartisan fashion. However, given the political situation where raising tax revenues to solve our budget problems is nearly entirely impossible, I view changes to the debt limit with suspicion. While in theory it seems like a good idea to devote less revenue to debt service and one percent isn’t all that much, at this time it seems like the near-term half percent change might entirely restrict the ability of the legislature to take out infrastructure loans for the next few years. Moreover, the change to use a six year average revenues to determine the maximum percentage strikes me as way to extend the impact of a recession by limiting the state’s ability to borrow for several years after a recession ends. But, in the end, I mostly oppose this resolution because until our legislators figure out how to reasonably pay for services the voters want, juggling rules about debt isn’t going to do us any good.

Vote no on Tim Eyman’s odious super majority law, I-1185, at the least. It’s not going to save your wallet. It’s just going to slowly destroy the services we expect our government to provide like education, police and health services.

This post is part of series on the 2012 election, focused on the state of Washington. I highly recommend having a look at the state’s main voter guide before casting your ballot.

Election 2012: Support Equality and Gay Marriage

Vote yes on R-74 to support equal rights. Referendum 74 will finally make gay marriage legal in Washington. The state legislature actually already passed (and the governor signed) a law to legalize gay marriage. However, opponents of gay marriage managed to get enough signatures to suspend the law, requiring it go to the voters. So here we are.

The proposed law

The law does what the title says: any two people (regardless of legal sex) would be allowed to marry in the state of Washington. Further, all the usual automatic legal benefits of marriage — hospital visitation rights, filing taxes together, being able to automatically co-parent a child, etc. — would apply. Basically, take any section of state law that pertains to married couples (or domestic partnerships) and make them gender neutral. The law also specifically affirms that ministers, etc. have choice in who they marry (gay or otherwise) and that religious organizations are not obligated to make their facilities available to anyone.

There are a couple interesting bits though:

  • Imams and rabbis are specifically added to the list of folks who can perform marriages. It’s not really surprising: it’s a good time to make the law explicitly more inclusive.
  • The law has an “upgrade” provision for couples who already had a legal domestic partnership or other similar commitment.

Vote Yes on R-74 to Support Equality for All

I’m obviously voting for this. I’m not sure what argument I would make to say why I support it: it just seems obvious to me at this point in my life that my gay friends deserve the same societal recognition that my relationships get. If there’s any governmental interest in marriages as an institution (and currently we grant numerous legal benefits to it), then there can’t be a reasonable governmental interest in denying it to some based on moral or religious ideas that aren’t universally held.

If you’re on the fence or opposed, I’m not sure there’s an argument I can make that would convince you. But consider this: allowing gay marriage is no skin off your back. Your life won’t change with it legal. No one is going to force anyone to do anything they don’t want to. Gay marriage doesn’t change much for anyone who isn’t in a gay relationship. But for a gay couple, being able to get married means things I take for granted — like being able to visit my partner in the hospital — are automatically recognized. But for everyone else? Nothing really changes. Actually, no, there might be one change. You might have some friends that are gay and you had no idea. They might invite you to their wedding. Weddings are great. You should go.

Vote yes on R-74 to support gay marriage.

This post is part of series on the 2012 election, focused on the state of Washington. I highly recommend having a look at the state’s main voter guide before casting your ballot.

Election 2012: Investment Policy For State Universities

Senate Joint Resolution 8223 is being sent to the voters this November. While it’s a passed state law, it has to be sent to the voters because it amends the state constitution to allow public money controlled by the state universities to be invested in a manner similar to how money in public pension and other funds are invested.

The main argument against allowing this is that the state universities will send their money off for investment and gamble it in the stock market. To support this claim, those opposed note how much money the state investment board (which would also control these investments) lost during the recent economic recession. I find this a pretty unconvincing argument: almost all investors lost money during the recent downturn. The reason to allow investment is that even in good times, you’re going to lose money (relative to inflation) having it just sit in the bank.

I’ll probably vote yes on this one. Normally I would default to voting against an initiative, but this isn’t a typical one. Since the state constitution specifically limits what money can invest public money, adding university funds requires an amendment … which has to go to the voters. I see little additional risk in allowing a state board to invest education money in the same way it’s already investing those institutions’ retirement funds.

This post is part of series on the 2012 election, focused on the state of Washington. I highly recommend having a look at the state’s main voter guide before casting your ballot.

Election 2012: Charter Schools

Initiative I-1240 would establish a system allowing privately operated and publicly funded “charter” schools. Initially only forty charter schools would be permitted over the first five years.

I’m skeptical of charter schools in general: if we’re going to spend public money on schools, I want it going to the regular school system, not one that a parent has to choose to apply to get their child into. Worse, very little I’ve read suggests charter schools educate students better. So why would I want such a system here?

The proposed law

The proposed law creates a commission to authorize and fund up to forty non-profit charter schools. Teacher certification requirements for these schools would be the same as for other public schools. The charter schools would have to allow any student to enter (using a lottery to choose if there are too many students applying). The charter schools would be subject to the same academic standards as public schools, would receive equivalent funding and be overseen by the state charter commission or the local school board. The main differences are that the charter schools would not be subject to local rules regarding hiring and firing of teachers, have more flexibility on curriculum and teaching methods or tools.

Oddities of the proposal:

  • Charter schools are allowed to go into debt, but that debt couldn’t be serviced using public funds and the debt is not secured by the state. I don’t understand how this would work at all. They would be non-profit organizations that can’t charge fees for enrollment or attendance. Where would they reasonably get their money? I suppose there are private educational grants, but it seems like a pretty risky way to plan to repay a loan. Considering the charter schools would also be authorized to apply for state grants and loans for building or improving schools, I’m not sure why this provision even exists. It seems likely that if it were used much at all, schools would go bankrupt leaving students in the lurch (well, having to transfer to the “normal” public school).
  • Speaking of the above, charter schools would be allowed to solicit gifts, donations and grants (as long as they aren’t sectarian or religious). I imagine this could be difficult to police and enforce.

Vote No on I-1240

I’m skeptical that charter schools make any sense at all at this point. This proposal makes them subject to nearly all the rules a regular public school would be. What stops just allowing school districts more flexibility? We already have magnet schools to specialize (e.g. technology schools). The main way the charter school can be different is in its teacher hiring and firing policy and it’s just not clear to me that would “fix” education. Moreover, other states haven’t seen terribly great benefits from charter schools. In New York only 10% of charter students were considered college ready despite 49% graduation rates — those averages for the entire state were 41% and 77% respectively. Similar (though usually less dramatic) differences have been seen in other states showing that charter schools aren’t really doing better than public schools in general. Why would we remove money from the schools that almost all students will actually attend to pay for something that has low odds of success?

Moreover, given what I’ve read, many of our educational outcome problems may be due more to differences in early education and health. Kevin Drum covers this topic a lot and it seems pretty clear that the best thing we as a society we could do is put lots of money into day care, pre-kindergarten and early age health interventions (e.g. lead abatement). It’s sad for all those kids in high school — it seems almost like we’d be giving up on them. But given limited funds, I’d far rather they go to toddler school and nutrition programs than experimental charter schools. Vote No on I-1240.

This post is part of series on the 2012 election, focused on the state of Washington. I highly recommend having a look at the state’s main voter guide before casting your ballot.

Election 2012: Why You Should Vote for Washington’s Marijuana Legalization

The state of Washington will have measure I-502 (PDF) on the general election ballot in November to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana in a manner very similar to alcohol.

I don’t smoke marijuana. I don’t care if you do. But I do care that our current system of law enforcement around marijuana creates more criminals than would otherwise exist, breaks up families and imprisons people unnecessarily. The criminalization of marijuana has all the same problems as alcohol prohibition and makes even less sense. If Washington state legalizes it, it may be the start to a national trend that will change our laws and culture to the benefit of all.

The proposed law

The proposed law would, at least in the state of Washington, legalize the production, processing, sale (with a tax) and consumption of marijuana. The current state liquor control board would be authorized to license producers (growers), processors and retailers. Further, state law would be changed to add marijuana as an intoxicating substance with a threshold similar to alcohol. General consumption and possession would no longer be illegal at the state level.

Oddities of the proposal

  • Retailers of marijuana products will not be allowed to sell anything but marijuana, marijuana products and paraphernalia. The retailer is also not allowed to have much external advertising beyond a sign of a certain maximum size. This is very different than alcohol retail sales which occur in many locations, usually with food and other goods. Sadly, I expect this to result in marijuana continuing to be perceived as outside the norm (despite large numbers of Americans using the substance). On the other hand, this isolates harm to neighborhoods from any trouble with the federal government: if your corner convenience store can’t sell marijuana, it can’t get shut down by the federal government. On the other, other hand, if the law allowed any business that could legally sell alcohol to sell marijuana, it might greatly accelerate the national conversation as the federal government can’t practically arrest so many people (or I’m naive — yes, probably that).
  • The retail marijuana sales tax seems remarkably high at 25%. This might be high enough (combined with the costs of single-purpose business locations) that black market marijuana would be cheap enough that to be worth the risk. However, the tax on a carton of cigarettes is over $30 and I’m not aware of dominating black market activity there so perhaps it’s not that outrageously high.

Vote Yes on I-502 to Legalize Marijuana

I’m not going to make a complete case here that the drug war and marijuana prohibition have been detrimental to society. Others have done that better. This law won’t even end marijuana prohibition. All it will do is relax the rules in the state of Washington and maybe, maybe someday the laws of our nation will change. What do I want to change?

  • We put far more black and minority men in prison for drug crimes than white men (or women) despite similar rates of use (and dealing). This is unconscionable.
  • We are criminalizing a common behavior that is fundamentally similar to legal behavior (e.g. alcohol use). People using marijuana are no more risk to society than drinkers of alcohol (quite easily argued less risk). But we’ve created a system that criminalizes casual users and abusers equally. A person who is having trouble with alcohol can get help. A person who is having trouble with marijuana might avoid trying to get help for fear of the law. If you have trouble with alcohol, you might harm your family and friends (or kill someone) but you probably won’t go to jail. Even if you’re able to handle marijuana responsibly, you may still harm your family and friends because you might go to jail.
  • Marijuana prohibition empowers cartels and broader illegal activity. Unlike other drugs, the domestic marijuana market could be served entirely domestically and under effective rule of law. In general, alcohol manufacturers and distributors don’t get into gun battles. I don’t expect marijuana ones would either.

I strongly think this law is a good idea even if it doesn’t achieve all possible goals. But there are some provisions that even someone inclined to agree with me might find objectionable.

  • The changes to create DUI enforcement for marijuana contains a fairly odious provision that allows no level of marijuana for under 21 drivers. For alcohol, an underage driver can have some small amount of alcohol in their system and not be considered driving under the influence. This law allows no such threshold for marijuana.
  • How the state and federal government will interact under this law is complicated and unpredictable. There is some possibility that no one will risk becoming a legal producer or retailer because of worries about federal enforcement. In that case, users of marijuana will continue buying illegally.

I won’t pretend: this is not a perfect law. It’s not the one I would write. It might not even actually change anything — certainly we won’t enter a utopia of improved drug policy and a less racist criminal justice. But it’s better than what we have now. Vote yes on I-502 to legalize marijuana in Washington.

This post is part of series on the 2012 election, focused on the state of Washington. I highly recommend having a look at the state’s main voter guide before casting your ballot.