Tuesday, October 30, 2012

No on Two Local Issues

With exactly a week before my ballot has to be back in the government's hands, I'm filling it out a bit faster now. So far I've voted yes on I-1185, I-1240 and SJR-8221, approved R-74 and voted no on I-502, SJR-8223, A-1 and A-2. Below are two local issues, one for the Port of Bellingham and one for the City of Bellingham.
NO on Port of Bellingham, Proposition 1, Number of Port Commissioners

The Issue: There are currently three Port of Bellingham Commissioners; this proposition would raise that number to five.

My Position: While the official argument for Prop-1 speaks of increased representation, this smells to me like an attempt to pack the commission. I can find no clear evidence for or against my hypothesis, but it still smells like a fish to me. Plus, Washington's open meetings law applies to one-on-one meetings of a three-member commission; it does not apply to one-on-one meetings of a five-member commission. That smells even fishier. I will be voting NO on the Port's Prop-1.

NO on City of Bellingham, Proposition 1, Low-Income Housing Levy

The Issue: City Council wants to raise property taxes by $36 per $100,000 of assessed value to fund a program for low-income housing.

My Position: I will be voting no on this tax increase, for three reasons:

1) An increase in the property tax will increase rent, and I don't want my rent to go up.

2) Trying to make housing more affordable by raising taxes on housing is just plain stupid. As the official "Statement Against" says, "You don't make housing more affordable by making it more expensive."

3) The state and federal governments already provide low-income housing subsidies, as well as other programs for low-income people. Do we really need yet another level of government doing the same thing as the others?

No on Three Minor Statewide Issues

With exactly a week before my ballot has to be back in the government's hands, I'm filling it out a bit faster now. So far I've voted yes on I-1185, I-1240 and SJR-8221, approved R-74 and voted no on I-502. Below are three minor statewide issues: SJR-8223 on public fund investments, plus two advisory votes.
NO on SJR-8223, Public Fund Investments

The Issue: In general, Washington state public funds are prohibited from investing in private stocks and bonds. Over time, a laundry list of exceptions has been added to the constitution, primarily allowing public trust funds and public pension funds to invest in private stocks and bonds. SJR-8223 would add the operating budgets of the University of Washington and Washington State University to the list of exceptions.

My Position: Using public funds to invest in private companies looks to me like a backdoor way to pick winners and losers with voters none-the-wiser. I think the general prohibition is a great idea, and that we should probably reduce the list of restrictions rather than increase it.

REPEAL A-1, B&O Tax Increase

The Issue: The Washington legislature raised B&O taxes on some financial institutions and lowered taxes for others, including manufacturers of agriculture products and newspapers, for a net 10-year tax increase of $24 million.

My Position: Tax increases in general are bad. This one in particular is worse. It raises taxes on a disfavored industry (finance) by $170 million, and mostly offsets it with cuts to favored industries (agriculture, newspapers). While this is only an advisory vote, I will vote to repeal to send a message against tax increases and against favors to certain industries over others.

REPEAL A-2, Petroleum Tax

The Issue: A tax on certain commercial petroleum products was set to expire, and the Washington legislature extended the expiration date for a 10-year tax increase of $24 million.

My Position: Once again, tax increases are bad. While A-2 is not as bad as A-1, I will still vote to repeal to send a message against tax increases.

Yes on SJR-8221, Altering the Debt Limit

With about a week before my ballot has to be back in the government's hands, I'm filling it out bit by bit. So far I've voted yes on I-1185 and I-1240, approved R-74 and voted no on I-502.
SJR-8221, Altering the Debt Limit

The Issue: Engrossed Senate Joint Resolution 8221 is a constitutional amendment implementing three changes to the Washington state limit on debt payments:

1) The amendment would schedule three reductions to the state debt limit. Currently at 9.0% of general state revenues, the limit would fall to 8.5% in 2014, 8.25% in 2016 and 8.0% in 2034 (and no, that's not a typo, that's a reduction scheduled for twenty-two years after the amendment).

2) The current limit is based on the average of general state revenues over the previous three years. The amendment would change that to six years.

3) Whereas "general state revenues" currently only includes revenue that is not dedicated to a specific use, the amendment would redefine "general state revenues" to include the state property tax, which is dedicated to the specific use of funding public schools.

My Position: I'm no fan of government debt, and Washington state debt is already over 20% of GSP. I wholeheartedly support lowering the limit on state debt.

The Changes:

1) While scheduling the final drop to 8.0% for 2034 is nothing but cynical, a drop to 8.5% at the next biennial budget and 8.25% at the biennial budget after that is a clear win for smaller government.

2) Extending the the basis for the limit from the average of three years to six years stabilizes the limit against recessions. However, since revenue typically grows year-to-year, the six-year average will usually be smaller than the three-year average. The debt limit will be a smaller percentage of a smaller number-- again, a win for smaller government.

3) Expanding the definition of "general state revenues" to include property taxes further stabilizes the limit, as property taxes are more stable than other forms of revenue. However, this also raises the limit. The Commission on State Debt (PDF) found that property taxes are about 10% of general state revenue, but typically grow slower (2%) than the rest of general state revenue (4.5%). Even so, if these numbers hold true, the new limit would be about 2.5% lower than the old in 2014, and would drop to almost 6% lower than the old in 2016. Once again, a win for small government.

I will be voting YES on SJR-8221.

No on I-502, Marijuana

With about a week before my ballot has to be back in the government's hands, I'm filling it out bit by bit. So far I've voted yes on both I-1185 and I-1240, and approved R-74.
I-502, Marijuana

The Issue: I-502 would make it legal under state law (but not federal law) to possess and sell marijuana under a system of strict regulations. Marijuana producers could not have any financial interest in marijuana retailers and vice versa. Licenses to produce, process or retail marijuana would cost $250 to apply plus $1000 per year per location, with samples regularly submitted to state labs for testing.

Furthermore, marijuana would be taxed at 25% at each level of production and distribution, prior to state and local B&O and sales taxes. At the legally-mandated minimum of two steps of production (producer -> retailer), state taxes on marijuana would be approximately 68%. Total tax, including the state average for local sales taxes, would be over 70%.

I-502 also establishes many alcohol-equivalent rules for marijuana use. For example, marijuana possession would remain illegal for those under 21, driving under the influence of marijuana would be illegal for everyone, open containers in public would be prohibited, etc. The pro-502 website is here. The official anti-502 website, which is pro-legalization, is here.

My Position: I don't fully buy the arguments supporting the drug war, but I also don't buy a lot of the arguments opposing it. My libertarian leanings run up against path dependency, and I remain agnostic on the drug war as a whole.

I am opposed to I-502 because it won't bring any of the benefits of legalization, yet will create a massive new state bureaucracy under the guise of legalization.

My Reasons:

1) I-502 will directly contradict federal law, under which marijuana production, distribution and possession will all remain illegal. If passed, the initiative is likely to be struck down entirely or in part in federal court. (The counterargument is that I-502 allows but does not require violations of federal law, so that it is not pre-empted and will not be struck down. However, I-502 does seem to require violations of federal law by state marijuana regulators, particularly the prohibitions on possession and distribution of marijuana. The feds may also consider it money laundering to accept funds raised from the marijuana tax.)

2) Even if I-502 is not struck down, the threat of federal prosecution for marijuana crimes will prevent the benefits of legalization from being realized. Licensed marijuana producers, processors and retailers will have their names, addresses and precise details of their businesses recorded in a state database. Any guesses on how long it takes that database to get into federal hands? Anyone who opens a marijuana business is betting big on that never happening. New producers will be discouraged from entering the market; existing producers will be discouraged from becoming licensed.

3) Furthermore, the regulatory system set up by I-502 will place legal marijuana sellers at a substantial disadvantage to illegal sellers. Legal marijuana sales will have a cumulative tax of at least 68%, and possibly more than 100% if the production and distribution chain contains more than two steps. Then there's the significant regulatory burden placed on legal sellers-- the fees they must pay to the government, or to third parties because of government requirements; the restrictions on where they can sell, where and how they can advertise, what other businesses they can be involved in; and all of it with the threat of federal prosecution still hanging over their heads. Again, new producers will be discouraged from entering the market, and existing producers will be discouraged from becoming licensed.

4) The existing (illegal) marijuana market is an international one, yet legal marijuana sellers under I-502 will be limited to Washington state, both in who they buy from and who they sell to. With the other disadvantages placed on legal sellers, they will never be able to compete with existing illegal sellers, and those illegal sellers have scant incentive to become legal.

Whatever benefits full legalization might provide, we won't see any of them under I-502. Meanwhile, the state will spend tens of millions of dollars setting up a bureaucracy to regulate a market that will likely fail to materialize.

I will be voting NO on I-502.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Approve R-74, Same Sex Marriage

With less than two weeks before my ballot has to be back in the government's hands, I'm filling it out bit by bit. So far I've voted yes on both I-1185 and I-1240.

R-74, Same Sex Marriage

The Issue: R-74 is a referendum on Senate Bill 6239, which extended the legal term "marriage" to include relationships previously included only under the term "domestic partnership" and restricted the term "domestic partnership" so that it would not overlap the term "marriage." SB-6239 also granted special immunities to clergy and religious organizations to preserve their right to not perform or recognize any particular marriage.

SB-6239 was signed into law by Governor Gregoire in February of this year. Opponents gathered enough petition signatures to require a referendum; that referendum is R-74. Approval means the law will be enacted; rejection means it will not be enacted. The pro-approval website is here; the pro-rejection website is here.

My Position: Whether or not to marry and who we marry if we do is one of the most deeply personal choices we can make, and the government has no place in it. Unfortunately, that option isn't on the table.

Current law in Washington has already established same-sex "domestic partnerships" which are legally equivalent to marriage in all but name. R-74 is not about relationships or love or God's will or anything else its supporters and detractors claim. Everything that could happen under R-74 would also happen without it. R-74 is a very narrow question that is entirely linguistic: Should the legal term "marriage" also refer to what are now same-sex domestic partnerships?

Twice now, I've deliberately referred to "marriage" as a legal term, because in this instance, that is all that it is. State law cannot change the popular meaning of a word, only its use in legal terminology. I don't care one way or the other about legal terminology. A rose by any other name...

However, R-74 also grants special protections to religious organizations to preserve their right to not perform or recognize same-sex marriages. This provision gets closer to my ideal marriage policy than any other proposal I've ever seen-- You should be free to marry whoever you want, and I should be free to acknowledge or ignore it however I want. I would prefer if these protections were granted to everyone, not just religious organizations. Even so, R-74 enshrines the right to disagree, and this, I think, is a very important first step towards my ideal.

I will be voting APPROVE on R-74.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Yes on I-1240, Charter Schools

With less than two weeks before my ballot has to be back in the government's hands, I'm filling it out bit by bit. Voting Yes on I-1185 was easy; I-1240 is more difficult.

I-1240, Charter Schools

The Issue: I-1240 would create a "new" type of public school, one managed by a non-religious, non-profit organization, yet funded by the state government. Forty-one other states have adopted charter schools; I-1240 would allow a total of 40 charter schools in Washington. The pro-1240 website is here; the anti-1240 website is here.

My Position: In general, I support increasing school choice. In this particular case, I'm a bit leery for a few reasons. However, any reform that provides more choice is a step in the right direction, so I support I-1240.

My Reservations: I have three main concerns about I-1240:

1) Washington's charter schools will be explicity non-religious. Now under current Supreme Court doctrine, we may not have any other choice, but it still concerns me. If I-1240 passes, Washington will be establishing a program to give tax money to private organizations, and explicitly excluding certain organizations from consideration for that money based soley on religion. (On the other hand, it's not like regular public schools are any better in that regard, and at least I-1240 will expand parental choice.)

2) Washington's charter schools can only be run by non-profits. By removing the profit motive, I-1240 removes one of the best advantages charter schools have over regular public schools. (On the other hand, Washington voters have already rejected charter schools three times. Non-profit charters may be the only kind of charter school we can hope to see here in the near future.)

3) I would prefer a full voucher system that allowed parents the full range of choices for their children's education. (On the other hand, realistically, that's not going to happen any time soon, at least not in Washington state.)

Counterarguments: The No-on-1240 side makes four main counterarguments against I-1240, quoted below from the official Argument Against published in the voters' pamphlet:

1) "Charter schools will drain millions of dollars from existing public schools." (Rebuttal: In Washington, public school funding is based on enrollment. If a student enrolls in a different public school, the money follows the student. Charter schools will take money from existing schools only to the extent that parents choose charter schools over existing schools.)

2) "Charter schools will serve only a tiny fraction of our student population." (Rebuttal: Since school funding follows the student, this means that only a tiny fraction of public school money will be taken from existing schools. So what's the problem? I have a hard time taking this counterargument seriously. If the problem is that only a few would benefit, what kind of solution is it to forbid those few from benefiting?)

3) "Charter schools are an unproven, risky gamble." (Rebuttal: Forty-one states plus DC have already adopted charter schools, some more than twenty years ago. You might say compact discs are unproven, risky gambles too. But seriously, regular public schools are a gamble too-- some fail spectacularly. The difference is that you currently can't leave a public school without shelling out thousands to a private school or homeschooling. The parents' option to exit will not only keep charter schools on their toes, but improve performance in non-charter schools as well.)

4) "Charter schools undermine local control." (Rebuttal: I should hope so! If I were a parent, I wouldn't want the local board to have such total control over where I educated my children. I-1240 only undermines "local control" insofar as it restores choice to parents.)

I will be voting YES on I-1240.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Yes on I-1185, the Two-Thirds Tax Requirement

The election is upon us! In recent days I have received both the poorly-named, 143-page voters' "pamphlet" with sample ballot as well as my actual ballot. I have until 8pm on Election Day to get it back to the government, so it's time to do my homework. First up is an easy one:

I-1185, the Two-Thirds Tax Requirement

The Issue: Current law in Washington state requires tax increases to be passed with a two-thirds majority in both houses of the state legislature, or by a simple majority in a popular vote. This law has been passed four times by popular initiative, most recently in 2007 and 2010. It was overturned by the legislature upon losing initiative protection in 2010. I-1185 renews the law to prevent it from being overturned in 2013. The pro-1185 website is here; the anti-1185 website is here.

My Position: I wholeheartedly support I-1185, and indeed any law that provides a check on the government's ability to take my money at will. The two-thirds requirement makes it more likely that taxes will only be raised when it truly is necessary.

Counterarguments: There seem to be four main arguments against I-1185:

1) Taxes should be higher, and I-1185 makes it more difficult to raise them as high as they should be, negatively impacting government services. (Rebuttal: No, taxes should not be higher. Important services can be funded by cutting non-important spending. If everything the government is doing is so important that none of it can be cut, then it should be easy to get a two-thirds vote in the legislature or a simple majority popular vote.)

2) I-1185 is unfair because it allows tax cuts & loopholes to be passed with a simple majority, but reversing those cuts & loopholes requires a two-thirds majority. (Rebuttal: This is true, but I have to admit, I'm just fine with a system that's biased towards letting me keep more of my own money.)

3) A two-thirds requirement is undemocratic. (Rebuttal: I-1185 allows tax increases via direct, simply majority popular votes. Nothing could be more democratic than that.)

4) A two-thirds requirement is unconstitutional. (Rebuttal: I would certainly prefer a constitutional amendment that does what I-1185 does, but constitutional amendments must be proposed by the legislature, and wouldn't you know it, they don't seem to like amendments that limit their own power. If an initiative as beneficial as I-1185 actually is unconstitutional, that would be a failure of the state constitution, not the initiative.)

I will be voting YES on I-1185.