Tim Eyman's new initiative, which will be on your ballot in November, seems simple enough. It would essentially limit the amount of money the government can collect from taxpayers based on how much it collected the previous year, adjusted for inflation and population growth. Any surplus the state collects would go toward reducing property taxes. Eyman says Initiative 1033 would stabilize the legislature's "fiscal roller coaster, overextending themselves in good times—creating unsustainable budgets—which led to slashing during bad times."
So what could go wrong?
If passed by voters, the measure would lock Washington into its current budget—the worst budget the state has had in decades, owing to the recession—and prevent the budget from expanding when the economy improves. So the state at its leanest—like right now, with a budget requiring the state to lay off roughly 3,000 teachers and cut basic health services for 40,000 people—would become the most robust the state could ever be. In addition, the gap between costs and revenue would steadily grow, because costs for services and shifts in demographics (like more students in schools and old people in nursing homes) outpace inflation and population growth.
"Eyman is the master of taking very complicated situations and making them seem simple," says Bill Williams, director of the Washington State Parent Teacher Association, which voted in August to oppose Eyman's Initiative 1033. "It is a terrible way to make policy."
Indeed, even the early forecasts of I-1033 show potentially devastating impacts on the state's budget for education, health care, and vaccines. As a result, class sizes could grow, increasing numbers of poor and elderly people would be kicked off state-funded health programs, and response to natural disasters and disease outbreaks would be minimal because the state couldn't run surpluses to pay for them. The first official indicator of 1033's repercussions came in a mid-August report from the state's Office of Financial Management (OFM), which found that by 2015, revenue to the state's general fund could be down $8 billion.
"The timing is terrible," says Aisling Kerins, the campaign manager for No on I-1033. "Things are tough enough right now, and Eyman's initiative is only going to make this worse. It is the same failed idea that devastated Colorado."
In 1992, Colorado became the only state to cap revenue. Data collected there shows a state in a tailspin. Higher-education funding dropped 21 percent in four years, according to the Bell Action Network, a nonprofit research organization in Colorado. The group also found the number of children without health insurance doubled and immunization programs for children were suspended—until voters put the law on hold for five years to let the state recover from its effects.
Although I-1033 gives lip service to population growth and inflation, it doesn't account for the expenses associated with demographic shifts. For example, the OFM found that while the population in Washington State grew only 11.7 percent between 2000 and 2008, the number of people over 65 years old grew by 16.5 percent. Those people need more health care, and the rising cost of health care (and other services) outpaces the rising costs of goods, which is what inflation calculations are based on. In short, more people are going to need more expensive things, but we would always be restricted to the same amount of money to pay for it.
While the state Republican Party endorsed I-1033 in August (and groups including the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce opposed it), several organizations are scrambling to calculate the sour effects of the sweet-tasting initiative. Remy Trupin, director of the think tank Washington State Budget & Policy Center, says the legislature is constitutionally bound to fund certain things, like K–12 education, but it would be forced to take from other basic services, such as nursing homes, community colleges, and vaccination for kids. "Those are always programs that are on the chopping block," he says.