I-776 sets bad precedent for home rule
Home rule has always been an important idea underpinning American democracy. Although local governments have no legal independence, we Americans have long liked the idea of governing ourselves close to home.
Ask most Washingtonians if they like the concept of home rule and you will hear a resounding yes. This interest is evident in Washington’s number of local governments, which include thirty-nine counties, two hundred seventy-nine cities, and about 1,700 special districts.
Initiative 776, passed in 2002, repealed the authority of local governments to issue a motor vehicle excise tax (MVET) and underhandedly took away the excise taxes of four counties with a statewide vote.
The state Supreme Court upheld I-776 in December of 2003, meaning that King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Douglas counties will be unable to fund the construction and repair of their roads through the MVET and casts doubt on the future of Sound Transit’s excise tax.
What is not so obvious is the effect I-776 has on home rule. Because the Legislature has the power to authorize and deauthorize local taxes, the people also unfortunately have this power by initiative.
I-776 asked voters in thirty-nine counties to repeal an excise tax levied in only four counties. In the Sound Transit taxing district, I-776 was defeated with a no vote of 56.6 percent. But the measure passed statewide by a final tally of 51.4 percent to 48.6 percent: a clear defeat for home rule.
I-776 opens the door for future mayhem. If voters can repeal local taxes, then they can also impose them. If a minority of the community decided they did not like a certain tax their community passed, or they wanted to give officials authority to levy a new tax, they could file a statewide initiative.
Assuming they got enough signatures, it would then be on the ballot. Voters statewide would then have the final say, not simply voters in the affected community.
Initiative 776 implies that voter approval or disapproval of local issues does not mean anything.
The lasting impact of I-776 is not the road money it took away. It is the precedent it set.
If voters statewide can take away the transportation funding of four counties, what else can they take away? What about funds for police, criminal justice, and fire protection? Laws like I-776 threaten to take away the power that voters have over the future of their own communities.
There is no easy way to solve this problem. Only a constitutional amendment could stop sponsors from using the initiative process to thwart the concept of home rule. This is only one of the many troubling problems with the initiative process. It can be useful, though, and ought to be reformed, not abolished.
Direct democracy is meant to be a check on representative democracy, not an obstacle to home rule.
Acting to solve the problem that I-776 created is in the best interest of all levels of government. Our state has a strong tradition of home rule. That shouldn’t change. Local decisions should be kept in local hands.