I-1631 Puts Spending in Hands of Politicians and Lobbyists

Oct 2, 2018

Who would control spending of the billions in new taxes from the carbon tax initiative, I-1631? A panel of experts, say supporters. Unless politicians disagree, they now admit.

I-1631 creates a fifteen-member board to make spending recommendations. Fourteen of those members are unelected and face no accountability for how the money is spent, or wasted. Supporters of I-1631 say this is good because, unlike the legislature, “lobbyists aren’t making decisions about our future.”

The initiative language has a list of potential expenditures, for projects they claim will help the environment. The initiative, however, doesn’t actually require those expenditures to be effective and the money could be misspent. For example, it specifically allows members of the Environmental and Economic Justice Panel to receive grants they themselves suggest.

Don’t worry, say legislative supporters – they will make sure that doesn’t happen.

Responding to concerns that unelected boards could feather their own nests or spend the money on foolish projects, one legislator told the Associated Press, “The buck stops with the Legislature when it comes to spending authority.”

This is a) ironic, and b) much worse.

First, the Voters’ Pamphlet statement for I-1631 specifically notes that taking power away from lobbyists is an important part of the initiative. Experts, not politicians subject to undue pressure, will make the decisions. The legislator’s comment, however, makes it clear that isn’t true at all. At the end of the day, politicians can do what they want with the money.

Second, by admitting that legislators can do whatever they want, the initiative’s promises of how the money will be spent are dubious. The Yes on 1631 web page has an entire section outlining potential benefits of the initiative. None of these, however, are binding.

In fact, legislators may use the money for anything they see fit, related to the environment or not. For example, tobacco taxes and the tobacco settlement money are supposed to be used for smoking cessation, but as the Seattle Times noted, less than 10 percent of those funds are used for that purpose.

This is not unique. The legislature routinely plunders so-called “dedicated accounts” like I-1631 would create. During the recession, the legislature grabbed money from performance audits, the state forest nursery, housing for the mentally ill, state emergency water projects, the education construction fund, the energy freedom account (ironic), and so on. They do the same every year, including the current budget where they took the money from the marijuana account, the toxics account, and several others.

Put another way, the sections in the initiative that provide spending guidance – Sections 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 11 – can be ignored by the legislature. These sections account for 22 of the 38 pages of the initiative. About 58 percent of the language of the initiative can simply be discarded.

This means that for all its promises, I-1631 is just a multi-billion-dollar tax increase and the money can be spent however the legislature wants. All the rest is window dressing.

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