Three Smart, Small Steps

It's an off year, but this election is a real opportunity to steer public policy.

The past two presidential elections and the 2004 gubernatorial follies have left me feeling hungover, as if from a night I don't want to remember. But I have high hopes for the modest little off-year election coming up Tuesday, Nov. 8. Maybe it's because my expectations are low and there isn't anything on the ballot that could usher in or stave off an apocalypse. There actually are chances to do some real good, in small or incremental ways— to chip away at some larger problems, to make a little progress.

Assuming the election here in King County goes relatively smoothly—and that's always a big if—there just might be some good news the day after.

First,the Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) appears to be near death. If voters resist the temptation to say "yes" again, if they withdraw their support of a cabbie's dream that has become a nightmare, it would be good for the city and good public policy.

I have weighed in previously about the problems with the proliferation of special public agencies and authorities, like the Seattle Popular Monorail Authority, that operate without proper oversight (see Mossback, "Designer Governments," Sept. 21). We suffer from government gridlock not only because of poor leadership, but because even our good leaders are hamstrung by an alphabet soup of custom-made, tax-funded entities that resist outside control, fight daylight, and answer only to very narrow constituencies. Created by lawyers to enable big business and to end-run the people, they have become a public nuisance.

SMP is the poster child for the damage such agencies can do, especially when they are run by incompetent cronies. As George W. Bush might say, the monorail board has done a heck of a job. Seattle voters have a rare chance to cut their losses and save their tax dollars for something that truly deserves them.

Second, Initiative 900 takes an important step in giving the people some oversight of—and insight into—how designer governments and other public agencies work. It would allow the state auditor to conduct full-fledged performance audits. There are some good, reasonable reasons to oppose performance audits. One worry is that the new law will give the state auditor too much power. It could be misused when someone less honorable than Brian Sonntag is voted in, likely with the backing of antigovernment types. But that's also true of virtually every other constitutional office in the state. It's why we hold elections: to vote such abusers out if they get in.

A better reason to oppose performance audits is that they might dumb down government, just like the WASL tests dumb down public education. Public employees, fearful of broad and subjective audits, might shape policy with less creativity and more caution. They might do the bureaucratic equivalent of teaching to the test: limiting their actions to those that will look good on paper, even if they don't do much actual good. We don't really need more incentives for public employees to cover their asses, do we?

But I favor I-900 because it is a bold experiment at shedding sunlight into corners where incompetence and corruption hide. To do this requires the commitment, muscle, and money that this initiative provides. I eagerly await full-scale audits of Sound Transit, the Port of Seattle, the Seattle School District, and other chronically troubled agencies where we know something is wrong but have difficulty putting a finger on the problem. Our public disclosure laws aren't enough, nor is placing trust in the same Legislature that has worked so assiduously to gut those disclosure laws and limit performance audits.

Third, there is Initiative 912, which would roll back the recent increase in the gas tax. For proponents of the bill, it is well timed, coming as it does in the era of $3-a-gallon gasoline. Too bad it's not accompanied by an initiative that would increase taxes on the obscene profits made off our misery by Big Oil and use those to fix our roads. Instead, I-912 asks us to damage ourselves further by underfunding the maintenance and repair of existing infrastructure, such as the tottering death trap that is the Alaskan Way Viaduct. In your heart, you know that earthquake's coming. Or that lahar.

My main sympathy for the initiative is that I think it was outrageous for a court to determine that the work of KVI-AM hosts John Carlson and Kirby Wilbur, who used their on-air influence to launch I-912, had to be considered a campaign contribution. Are we going to equate all speech to money? Is there anything more constitutionally basic than the right to speak out and organize a citizen's initiative or petition? There are other reasons for progressives to back the measure. The gas tax hurts working people, and some of the earmarked road projects are environmentally questionable.

Nevertheless, while we are in the era of $3 gas, we are also in the post-Katrina era and should have learned the costly, deadly lesson about the price of neglect. How did that old ad for oil filters go? "You can pay me now, or you can pay me later."

I think Katrina and government's poor response remind us that prudence and preparedness are good things, and that nature doesn't always wait for perfect policy.

kberger@seattleweekly.com

 
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