SEATTLE SOUNDINGS | Taking the initiatives

Well, someone’s got to try to solve the pressing issues of our times.
While spineless legislators in Olympia debate trying to close a staggering $2.6 billion projected budget shortfall by taxing candy (seriously), a couple of initiatives filed in recent weeks would, if they qualify for the ballot, give Washington state voters the opportunity to both address major social-justice concerns and help heal the state’s budget woes in a big way.
So why are under-funded citizens groups taking this on rather than the Democrats who control both chambers of the state Legislature and the governor’s mansion? I already gave you one obvious answer: They’re spineless.
Here’s another answer: They’re so wed to conventional wisdom (political variety) that they’ve become seriously out of touch with the general public.

Decriminalizing marijuana
First, a new group calling itself Sensible Washington filed an initiative last month that would decriminalize marijuana possession statewide. (A similar but unrelated measure is also wending its way to the ballot in California.)
Why decriminalize? Well, on general principle, so long as I’m not hurting anyone else, what I as an adult put into my own body shouldn’t be any of the state’s business. But beyond that libertarian impulse, it’s simply time to own up to prohibition as a costly, counterproductive mistake.
After 30 years of scarifying War on Drugs propaganda, a recent poll shows 54 percent of Washingtonians favoring an end to marijuana prohibition. That’s not just the 20 percent or so of Americans who’ve actually tried the stuff (or, at least, admit to having tried it) — that’s people who know people who know people, most of whom have concluded that it’s just not that much of a threat to Western civilization.
At least, not compared to the disrupted or ruined lives of the literally millions of Americans who’ve been busted for nonviolent drug offenses (such offenses make up a majority of many prison populations). Or the Mexican cartels who are shooting up their country in a battle over who can control market share in this country. Or the black-market status that allows weed to be far easier for most teenagers to buy than alcohol or tobacco.
Prohibition has been a disaster for just about everyone but the prison industry, and everyone except elected officials now seems to realize it — especially people under age 40 who’ve lived with “Just Say No” all their lives and tend to recognize it for the propagandistic, non-reality-based farce that it is.
If passed, a decriminalization initiative would instantly save the state a truckload of money in law-enforcement, court and prison costs. That alone would relieve a lot of budgetary pressure.
Moreover, it would open the door for the state to instead regulate and tax pot distribution (for example, through the existing network of state liquor stores), which could be a huge new revenue source. And it would instantly render above-ground the status of one of the state’s biggest cash crops.
So why isn’t anyone in Olympia even having this conversation? Two more modest bills died early in this year’s legislative session — again — and pot advocates have simply gotten tired of being stonewalled by lawmakers who won’t or can’t justify the current laws with anything other than tired, long-discredited rhetoric.

Tax reform
But that stonewalling pales next to the ridiculous aversion lawmakers have to tax reform.
Another group quietly filed an initiative last month to implement a high earners’ income tax — a proposed measure that Secretary of State Sam Reed’s office instantly labeled “unconstitutional,” even though it’s not even Reed’s job to pass judgment on a measure’s constitutionality. That’s for the attorney general, and beyond him, the courts.
And a lot of legal experts feel that the state prohibition on the taxing of income — a 1933 ruling based on a line of precedent long-overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court and subsequently also overturned in 47 other states — would not survive a court challenge.
Olympia’s conventional wisdom is that such a discussion can’t even be risked, less one face the wrath of the voters. But here’s the thing: If structured right, progressive income tax (combined with a reduction in the state’s regressive sales, property and B&O taxes) could bring in more revenue but still result in lower taxes for all but the wealthiest Washingtonians.
Initiative backers are hoping to have that conversation, and then, if the measure passes (a similar one passed in Oregon last month), take the battle to the courts. The guaranteed legal wrangling prevents any immediate relief to the state’s budget woes, but those woes are just going to get worse in the coming years, so long as our state is confined to taxing an ever-shrinking slice of its economy.

Something’s wrong
The thing is, with both a high earners’ income tax and pot decriminalization, it shouldn’t fall to ordinary citizens to push these issues. We pay elected officials to weigh the options and make the best public-policy decisions. 
And when ossified groupthink and special interests dominate that decision-making to the point that common-sense suggestions like these seem radical and edgy, it’s time to acknowledge that something in our political system is very, very broken.

GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State![[In-content Ad]]