Tuesday, November 5, 2013

November 2013 Statewide Issues

I find I have left this blog unattended for longer than I meant, but once again, it is time to vote, so I'm back. There are two state initiatives, a few advisory votes and a slew of local candidates to consider, plus one local issue. In this entry, I'll cover the statewide issues: I-517 regarding initiative reform, I-522 regarding GMO labelling and advisory votes 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, regarding tax increases passed by the state legislature.

I-517: Initiative Reform
First up is I-517, which reforms the initiative process in Washington state. I-517 includes four key reforms:
  1. It increases the time allowed to gather signatures for initiatives from ten months to sixteen months. Allowing at least a year (the time between elections) for gathering signatures seems like a reasonable reform.
  2. Any initiative that receives enough signatures must be placed on the ballot for a vote, eliminating the possibility of interference from local officials. Here in Bellingham, we recently had an initiative against red light cameras that was blocked by a lawsuit from the company that had been given the contract to install the cameras. This is an obviously needed reform.
  3. Official signature gatherers currently have the same legal protections as any other citizen standing on the street. I-517 would make it disorderly conduct (a misdemeanor) to "interfere with or retaliate against a person collecting signatures or signing any initiative or referendum petition..." Exactly what that means is defined by a long list in the initiative of actions that you shouldn't be doing to anybody anyway, whether or not they're collecting signatures. The claim by Riley Sweeney that "if you told someone to go jump in a lake when they asked for your signature, they could sue you for harassment" is simply false if you read the actual text of I-517 (I suppose, technically, anyone can sue anyone else for harassment, but that doesn't mean they have a snowball's chance of winning). Since gathering signatures is a required step for we citizens to exercise our right to petition the government, some special protection for those gathering and providing the signatures seems appropriate.
  4. I-517 also defines the places where signature gathering will be protected. According to the text of the initiative, official signature gathering "shall be a legally protected activity" in three types of places:
    1. "...inside or outside public buildings..." This one seems obvious--if the buildings truly are public (unlike national parks and memorials, as we found out during the recent shutdown), then you should be able to collect signatures in these public places.
    2. "...on public sidewalks and walkways..." Again, this seems obvious if these places are to be considered truly public.
    3. "...all sidewalks and walkways that carry pedestrian traffic, including those in front of entrances and exits of any store..." This is the one part of I-517 that might cause problems. Opposition to I-517 says this violates property rights. It certainly gives property owners less control over what happens on their property, which I don't like. That said, under I-517, signature gatherers are not allowed inside private buildings, nor are they allowed anywhere members of the public normally aren't, nor are they allowed in open areas that aren't sidewalks or walkways, nor are they allowed to do things (such as stalking, threatening or assault) that normal people can't do. Furthermore, existing law doesn't have a well-defined limit for where signature-gathering is or is not legal on private property, and this issue has gone to the courts several times. I-517's outside-walkways rule, while imperfect, is better than no rule at all.
Conclusion: Vote YES on I-517 to protect the initiative process for a better democracy.

I-522: GMO Labeling
The only other statewide initiative is I-522, which establishes a labeling system for food containing genetically-modified organisms. To decide which way to vote on I-522, I must ask three sequential questions, all of which must have an affirmative answer to vote for I-522. Those three questions are the following:
  1. Should genetically-modified food be labelled as such? I think the answer is likely yes. To be clear, I believe the science that says GMOs are safe. They have been in use now for nearly two decades and are likely in the majority of our food with no apparent side effects. Genetic engineering has been happening for millennia through hybridization; GMOs are simply a more direct way to get the genes that we want into the organisms that we want. If anything, I would trust the genetics of a GMO more than some random animal that came out of some field. That said, I know not everyone agrees with me. One of the necessary prerequisites to having a well-functioning free market is the freedom of information, and if people believe that they don't want GMO food, it is their right to avoid it.
  2. If GMOs should be labelled, should such labeling be required by the government? Here, I think the answer is likely no. The federal government already certifies organic food, and certified organic food cannot contain GMOs. For non-organic non-GMO food, private organizations like the Non-GMO Project are already picking up the slack. Since lots of people want to buy non-GMO food, there is a huge incentive for the private market to supply that information even without government requirements.
  3. If GMO labeling should be required, is I-522 the right way to do it? The answer here is a definite no. While I-522 requires labels for many foods, there are quite a few exceptions, including alcoholic beverages, food served at restaurants and medical food. If labels are so important for public health, why are there so many exceptions? Moreover, while the state's Department of Agriculture is usually in charge of food safety and labeling, GMO labels would be regulated by the Department of Health. This may seem small, but it likely means food produces will have twice the paperwork and have to go through twice the bureaucracy. It also means the Department of Health would have to duplicate a regulatory infrastructure that the Department of Agriculture already has in place.
Conclusion: While GMO labeling is good, government regulation is unnecessary and I-522 is the wrong way to regulate it. Vote NO on I-522.
Advisory Votes
In Washington state, thanks to a 2007 initiative, any tax increase passed by the legislature is submitted to the people for an advisory vote. The results are not binding, but they do ensure the public is aware of all tax increases, even ones the media doesn't deem important enough to mention. The advisory votes also give voters a chance to give the legislature some much-needed feedback.

This year, there are five advisory votes, numbered 3 through 7 (A-1 and A-2 were on 2012's ballot). In deciding how to vote, I've followed a simple rule: Taxes should be lower and simpler. That means increases in tax rates and new special taxes on specific groups should be repealed, but that bills that eliminate special credits for specific groups should be maintained.

A-3 Substitute Senate Bill 5444
This bill eliminated a tax credit for taxpayers who lease public property. Taxes should be the same whether you're leasing publicly-owned or privately-owned property. This eliminates an unfair tax credit, so it should be MAINTAINED.

A-4 Senate Bill 5627
This bill imposed a tax on commuter air carriers "in lieu of property tax." Why do air carriers need a special tax? The Washington State Budget and Policy Center has the context: "Senate Bill 5627 was championed by Governor Inslee in order to reduce taxes for Kenmore Air, a commuter air carrier located in Washington state. ... Although Kenmore Air will pay an additional $35,000 per year in aircraft excise taxes, its state and local property tax bills will fall by about $51,000 per year, a cost that will automatically be recouped through higher property tax bills for other homeowners and businesses." The Legislature, at the behest of the Governor, is shifting property taxes from one favored company to other disfavored companies and homeowners. Obviously, this should be REPEALED.

A-5 Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1846
This bill eliminated a tax exemption for pediatric oral services from the insurance premium tax. As a consequence, it also ensures that dental services purchased outside the new health care exchange do not face a tax disadvantage compared to those purchased within the exchange. While it would be preferable not to have an insurance premium tax in the first place, given that there is such a tax, it should apply as fairly as possible. This bill should be MAINTAINED.

A-6 Second Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 1971
This bill eliminated a tax exemption in the retail sales tax for some telephone and telecommunications services. Specifically, cell phone service was subject to the sales tax while landlines were not; instead landlines were subject to two special excise taxes. This bill eliminate the excise taxes and extended the sales tax to landlines, so that the same tax applies to all telephone services. This bill should be MAINTAINED.

A-7 Engrossed House Bill 2075
This bill extended the sales tax to some property transfers and raised the tax rates for estates over $4 million. This is a complicated one. On the one hand, it closes a loophole in the estate tax that was introduced by the courts. Closing loopholes and simplifying taxes is always good, and if that was the extent of what this bill did, I would vote to maintain. However, the legislature also introduced a new loophole for businesses, and to make up the revenue from the new loophole, raised the tax rate. Tax rates do not need to be raised and new loopholes do not need to be added, so this bill should be REPEALED.

I-517: YES
I-522: NO

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