Would making it harder for the Yakima City Council to raise taxes lead to a more responsible local government? Or a less functional one?
The question is central to Proposition No. 1, a measure on the November ballot to require five of the council’s seven members to vote yes to approve any tax increase.
The initiative touches on several major issues — such as mistrust of public officials and concerns about dysfunctional or fiscally irresponsible government — at the heart of many contemporary American political fights.
Top local conservatives formed the group Citizens for Two-Thirds to back Prop. No. 1 after the City Council voted against putting it on the ballot, then for it, and finally against it earlier this year. The group’s co-organizer with Ben Shoval is Bruce Smith, publisher of the Yakima Valley Business Times. Two councilmen, Rick Ensey and Bill Lover, are co-chairmen, but their involvement is limited almost entirely to lending their names and reputations to the campaign.
During a public debate on Prop. No. 1 earlier this month, Shoval, a local property developer, argued that raising the bar for passing tax increases would make for more debate, which would lead to wiser decisions.
“It doesn’t mean taxes will never go up. It doesn’t mean that there’s nothing worth paying for in government. But what it does mean is there’s further debate,” he said during the event, hosted by the Kiwanis Club of Yakima.
Opposing Prop. No. 1, longtime local political activist Tony Sandoval argued that the City Council already debates any proposed tax increase at great length and has been very reluctant to raise taxes.
The measure will make local government less effective and, essentially, is a solution in search of a problem, Sandoval said: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But Shoval and most Prop. No. 1 backers have said they are motivated more by principle than concerns about the current City Council.
As Shoval put it during the debate, “Raising taxes is always the path of least resistance” for elected officials.
The measure, if passed, would put a “sensible limit” on local government and encourage elected officials to seek other alternatives, he said.
But the City Council already seeks other options, so what’s the problem? Sandoval asks.
For example, earlier this year, it considered and rejected car tab fees, and is instead using existing revenue to pay for long-delayed road repairs. Also, the city could — but doesn’t — collect a business and occupation tax.
There are times when supermajorities are needed — such as impeachments, constitutional amendments, veto overrides — but they shouldn’t be used for general legislation, especially at the local level, Sandoval said.
Prop. No. 1 would only increase the power of the minority and hamstring local government, he said.
The measure would give greater weight to a no vote than a yes vote. If it passed, and four council members voted to raise a tax while three members voted against, the nays would win. So, three votes would beat four votes.
Requiring five votes wouldn’t have made a difference for any tax increase in at least the past couple of years. Property tax increases — limited to a 1 percent increase — already require five votes to pass, and the council’s most contentious vote on a tax increase — a 6 percent increase for utility taxes — passed by a 5-2 vote in late 2011.
That was the first utility tax increase since 1994.
The measure’s backers counter that the current council’s prudence is no safeguard against future fiscal irresponsibility.
Supermajority requirements have been popular with voters in the wake of the Great Recession, according to Jac Heckelman, an economics professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Pierce County and Spokane voters approved measures requiring a two-thirds majority to raise taxes in the past year. Last November, the state’s voters approved an initiative requiring a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature to increase taxes. Sixty-eight percent of votes cast in Yakima backed that measure. It was later overturned by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that any supermajority requirement on the Legislature could only be adopted as an amendment to the state Constitution.
The Pierce County and city of Spokane measures remain valid because they changed their respective city and county charters, which is what Prop. No. 1 would do if it passes.