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Originally published Wednesday, February 10, 2010 at 3:54 PM

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Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Voters faced with ballot fatigue and tax overload

Here we go again in 2010 with Seattle, King County and the state of Washington all contemplating tax increases of some sort. The result is a lack of prioritization and ballot overload. There ought to be a way to coordinate all of this and assess the overall impact on affordability for the region.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Here in the Northwest, we do tax increases, particularly requests for bonds and levies, like some people ride bumper cars. The city and county, and sometimes the state, drive around in circles smashing into one another. Taxpayers are left watching frightfully from the sidelines.

So it appears to be for the 2010 taxing season.

Seattle, King County and the state of Washington are all pondering requests for voter approval or outright impositions of taxes, but there is no place where the cumulative impact on taxpayers is contemplated or assessed.

The county may ask voters to approve a .2 to .3 percent increase in the sales tax. Proceeds would pay for public safety, public health and crucial human services — items likely to be slashed in the upcoming 2011 county budget. This is merely an idea so far, an expensive one in a recession.

The county budget — about three-quarters of which goes to courts, cops, jails, prosecutors and public defenders — is in dire trouble. Several County Council members, some former Democrats and former Republicans, are thinking of asking voters to help.

And then there is new Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, who has made an emergency election for a sea wall a priority — a $241 million property tax increase. He says the sea wall is a danger and must be dealt with promptly.

Always with the cupped hand out, always seeking more money from you and me.

One of the most likely scenarios to help balance the pinched state budget is to extend the sales tax to candy and gum and impose a wholesale tax on bottled water, which consumers would end up paying anyway. The tax may be tied to education or health care but probably would not require voter approval.

It is an increasing tradition in our region to offer government a la carte. You like police, don't you? Well, then, buck up for the sales-tax increase. If the county were to seek the .3 percent sales-tax increase, and if voters agreed, sales tax in the county would be 9.8 percent and 10.3 percent in bars and restaurants. That is until the Mariners stadium tax expires in early 2012.

Word to the wise: That tax will never come off the bill even after stadium bonds are paid because everybody and their second cousin once removed is eager to reroute the tax to their cause. Think Husky Stadium, KeyArena, the arts and others.

I have no specific problem with each tax mentioned above if the local government can make the case and show it is slashing all remaining blubber.

What irks me is the cumulative effect on citizens trying to make ends meet in an increasingly unaffordable region. There is little coordination between city and county, and insufficient synchronization between the mayor and the council.

To that end, the Seattle City Council recently asked McGinn to review all the voter "asks" on the horizon to have a more holistic sense of what is coming up. Councilmember Tom Rasmussen says the council is not on board for the mayor's requested May election for the sea wall and may pursue other funding options, including use of the city's credit card to reduce the hit on taxpayers.

By the current system, taxpayers face each new ballot with dread. The assumption is that each government may throw a tax increase our way almost every summer and fall. Couldn't there be a meeting where the geniuses we elect in various governments talk about the overall impact?

What happens instead is various bond and levy requests vie for popularity, with county officials arguing police and courts are more important than sea walls and the city saying a sea wall is more pressing. There is no system for prioritization. The result is ballot fatigue and tax overload.

It's not as if 2010 is unique. Seattle's Families and Education Levy is up for renewal in 2011. McGinn seems eager to ask voters this year or next if they want to extend light rail along the west side of Seattle. Counties are seeking a utility tax for unincorporated areas. The state is planning to tax or increase taxes on other items or services.

Your wallet and head and mine begin to ache.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times.


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