WASHINGTON — The latest polls and punditry suggest that voter disgust with congressional scandals, plus mounting impatience with the Iraq war, may deliver a stinging Election Day rebuke to the conservative factions in command of the GOP.
But if voters create an opening for more balanced and progressive approaches in Washington, how about the states and localities? How exempt are they from the right-wing push that gave us massive federal deficits, weakened environmental controls and Katrina-like instances of massively incompetent government?
For an answer, check this November's state ballot initiatives. Some efforts are moderate. Six states vote on proposals to boost the minimum wage above the woefully inadequate $5.15 level that Congress hasn't lifted since 1996.
What's alarming is the rise of complex taxation and property-rights initiatives that cast long shadows over the ability of state and local governments to perform their essential 21st-century tasks.
The fiscal perils are particularly acute in so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, initiatives on the ballots in Maine, Nevada, Nebraska and Oregon. They're modeled after a 1992 Colorado initiative that limited the state budget to the sum of inflation plus population change, to be overturned only by a supermajority of the Legislature or popular statewide referendum.
Reasonable on its face, TABOR in fact proved so Draconian — pushing Colorado from 35th to 49th among states in K-12 spending as a share of personal income — that voters in 2004 suspended it for five years.
The hard truth is that expenditures critical for states' populations and future — health care, prescription drugs, big infrastructure projects, new federal mandates, recession or natural-disaster recovery costs — easily exceed population and inflation growth.
Requiring legislative supermajorities puts effective control into the hands of small contingents of legislators, able to extract special favors or pork-barrel outlays. State votes to raise taxes necessitate tough, massive campaigns. Result: TABOR amendments don't simply restrain state governments; they threaten to paralyze them.
Property rights are the other mega-issues on ballots this autumn. Most are a reaction to the Supreme Court's 2005 Kelo decision affirming the right of cities to use eminent domain not just for roads and public improvements, but to seize property for economic development. A bipartisan firestorm of protest prompted 30 states to debate the issues; already most have voted some restraints on eminent-domain powers. Still, the issue will be on the ballot in 11 states this November — either as legislative referendums or by citizen initiatives.
Losing unfettered eminent-domain powers may hinder local governments, but there's a much more damaging threat lurking in similar-sounding proposals — so-called "regulatory taking" measures facing voters in Washington, California, Arizona and Idaho. Modeled after a measure Oregon voters approved in 2004, they give private owners sweeping powers to sue government for value they claim their property loses because of government regulations.
Governments then face a perplexing choice — pay the sometimes-massive claims or let property owners do whatever they want.
Estimated costs to government in Washington state, if the regulatory-takings initiative passes there, are as high as $8 billion. Once-protected farmlands will be imperiled; strapped governments could be forced to allow abuses ranging from buildings on wetlands to unwanted coal-burning power plants, next-door mining, porn shops and strip clubs — unless they're willing to pay private owners full value for purported unrealized gains.
While TABOR amendments threaten the fiscal futures of states, regulatory-takings initiatives hamstring the ability of states and localities to shape growth and protect land and communities in an era of mounting perils, global warming at the fore.
Reporters find that the TABOR and regulatory-takings measures appear suddenly, without a previous state political base. Small wonder. New York real estate magnate Howard Rich's Americans for Limited Government seems to be planting them and providing — as The Oregonian in Portland has documented — millions of dollars of support.
The immense danger here is that the people who infected Washington with their rigid ideologies and misuse of power are exporting their so-called solution sets to states and local governments that should be deciding critical 21st-century issues for themselves.
© 2006 The Seattle Times