September 12, 2005

Whitman County Special Election

Whitman County, Washington is holding a special election, coinciding with the September 20 primary election (which doesn't seem to have any measures or candidates on it this year) to approve a "budgetary emergency" measure to levy an additional .1% sales tax for the funding of jails and juvenile detention facilitties. I had some trouble finding information on the proposition, so let me point you to item 064927 (it reads 063927 at one point - apparently a typographical error) of the Whitman Country Commissioners' meeting minutes of last August 1, available online here. The county's total budget is available as item 063228 of the December 20, 2005 minutes, here.

Honestly, I must say I don't understand how the county manages to operate at a deficit. They've got a $37M/year budget to govern a bunch of wheat. It seems that the vast majority of the budget comes from federal or state grant money. Most of the line items consist in a revenue and an exactly matching expenditure. I won't criticize this, as it is not relevant to the present ballot measure, and is beyond the control of the commissioners. However, the portion of the budget which does not have corresponding revenues, and thus presumably comes from property and sales taxes (the county sales tax is currently 1.1%), is nearly $10M. To govern a bunch of wheat. Excuse my sarcasm, but I'm frustrated that the use of government to provide ridiculous and unnecessary services at outrageous costs has reached this far down. Now, granted, road repairs are expensive. But, guess what?! County road repairs have an $11M special revenue associated with them! Not a penny of "currentt expense" money is slated for road repairs. Law enforcement? Surely any good libertarian will acknowledge that this is necessary. But the sherriff's department, the court system, and everything else associated wtih law enforcement total only $4M of the "current expense" budget. That's less than half. Now, I'm alright, I suppose, with a government on the county level where voters really have a say, and where implicit social contract arguments make sense, maintaining parks and fairgrounds and things, and I suppose the same is true of "public health" measures (although I'm more skeptical about that one), so perhaps I've been a little hard on the commissioners here. However, I still have two problems. Firstly, how does one spend millions of dollars in administrative costs to govern a bunch of wheat? Second, why sales tax? That's a terrible idea. Don't they know that already everyone does their shopping in Idaho, and every business wants to be located in Idaho, simply because Washington's laws are anti-business (due mostly to the western side of the state)? Don't they see how every tiny increase in sales tax further cripples Whitman county's limited economy? If you really MUST have money for jails, couldn't you have passed a property tax instead? This was considered, but the minutes give no reason that I can find for the selection of sales tax instead.

Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, maybe the county couldn't be run on less money than it is, and maybe I'm projecting my frustrations with the federal government down to my local level. I still haven't decided how to vote on the proposition, because I certainly support funding for jails. This IS part of the purpose of government. But I think it's terrible that Washington's sales tax is so much higher than Idaho's, and Whitman county feels that difference economically, since its largest city is a mere 5 miles from the border. Presumably it is the state income tax that allows Idaho to do this. Now, I'm not a fan of confiscatory taxation in general. I would much rather see the government figure out more ways to charge for services it provides. However, at some point a service effects everyone, even those who don't chose to pay for it (it is what economists call a "positive externality"), and law enforcement is this way, so I acknowledge that we must pay for law enforcement somehow. There are also some good reasons for low levels of government (city or county) to provide certain health services, particularly in rural areas where it would not be profitable to establish such services commercially and where lack of services is unlikely to draw attention from charitable organizations (although I still suspect that a private sector solution might be possible, and if it was it would be desirable). I would also rather pay just about any tax than see the government irresponsibly operate at a deficit. If anyone (especially anyone from the area) should happen to read this in the near future, feel free to lobby for your side. As I'm sure you've picked up, I am currently leaning against.

Posted by Kenny at September 12, 2005 6:35 PM
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