Spokane's Community Bill of Rights Seeks To Grow City Government
Carl Gipson, Director, Center for Small Business, October, 2009
This op-ed appeared in the Spokane Journal of Business.
Next month the voters of Spokane will decide whether their city government’s powers should grow drastically in scope and size while relying on lawsuits to iron out the details.
Proposition 4, is an ambitious proposal that would fundamentally change the role of municipal government. It would do so by elevating city government to the role of "bestower of rights," arguably a role city government was never meant to play.
The proposal seeks to confer several new rights to certain groups, such as people without health insurance or people without affordable housing, and would also confer rights on various non-human entities in the environment. At the same time, the proposal would eliminate rights of businesses or corporations – an unheard of provision fraught with legal complications that will not survive judicial review.
In fact, our research found that many of the provisions in the proposal are contradictory. Allocating legal rights to the environment would cripple hydropower and therefore contradict the citizens' right of access to affordable energy, because Proposition 4's supporter’s interpretation of renewable energy (wind or solar) costs up to 7 times as much as hydro. Development of affordable housing would contradict the rights of the Neighborhood Councils to determine their own futures, because certain neighborhoods could be required to host public housing projects, whether or not local residents want them. More stringent environmental regulations would conflict with development of affordable housing. The contradictions go on.
Perhaps one of the more financially risky elements of the proposal is the stipulation that citizens are entitled to affordable and preventative health care. If the city is determined to cover those costs, and assuming Spokane's 23,000 uninsured (Envision Spokane's numbers) are covered using a very perfunctory preventative plan, the costs to the city would still be in the millions of dollars. Supporters of this plan want to implement a fee-for-service model, but under the lax way the statute is written any citizen could file a complaint against the city claiming that the nominal fee is unaffordable.
In fact, much of the language associated with the measure is vague, so that courts can take the lead in defining what the Proposition really means. Any time courts are tasked with codifying unclear legislation, the costs to the municipality increase dramatically. Unfortunately, this also means that when voters cast their ballots this fall, they may not have an accurate understanding of what it is they are voting on.
The reality is that the "rights" laid out in the Proposition are not really rights at all. They are entitlements. Supporters want every citizen to be legally entitled to health care, renewable energy, affordable housing and more. Ordinary natural rights, such as free speech, do not carry with them an expensive government-run program. Nor do the traditional rights protected by the U.S. Constitution specifically claim that certain entities have no legal rights – as the Proposition says that businesses shall be deemed to possess no legal rights, privileges, powers or protections under this proposal.
Supporters of Proposition 4 argue their proposal would spur economic development through a healthier, happier and more sustainable community. But enacting more regulations and increasing the cost of conducting business inside city limits will only harm consumers - the very folks supporters are supposedly trying to help - and depress city revenues.
A healthy economy is necessary for the city to fund many of its essential services. When private-sector businesses and citizens thrive, they pay taxes, funding police, fire, schools, streets, subsidized medical care and more. Demonizing private businesses and imposing new legal liabilities, creating an unsustainable business climate while courts decide the details of the imposed statutes, would cause business owners thinking of expanding or relocating to Spokane to move elsewhere.