Question: When is a promise not really a promise?
Answer: When lawmakers promise to let a tax expire.
That seems to be the scenario playing out in the Washington Legislature as legislators debate whether to allow a series of tax increases to build Safeco Field expire – as promised – or to continue the taxes to pay for other projects.
We urge lawmakers to live up to their promise. Let the taxes expire on schedule. And if the other programs are worthwhile, muster the courage to pass the taxes to pay for them or let voters authorize the tax increase.
The Seattle Times summarized this issue succinctly when editors there said, “Safeco Field generated a lot of animosity when it was built because of a frenzy of a ballot measure followed by a legislative emergency to build the stadium. The best way to rebuild public confidence is to fulfill the promise made.”
At issue is House Bill 1997 which – while well-intentioned – nonetheless breaks a promise made to voters more than a decade ago. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, would continue a series of taxes beyond their expiration dates. The revenue then would be directed toward economic development by promoting tourism, supporting housing programs, funding art and heritage programs, and dedicating tax revenue to community development.
We have no problem with the intended programs or the use of tax dollars to support them and – hopefully – create jobs. Our issue is with the source of the funds – taxes that are scheduled to lapse.
The bill as drafted:
Directs stadium-related tax sources in King County to a dedicated account after the stadium debt obligations are paid off.
Requires that money in the dedicated account be used for arts and heritage programs, affordable housing provided by nonprofit organizations and housing authorities, community development and to enhance the Washington State Convention Center.
Disallows the use of money in the dedicated account for acquiring or constructing a stadium used by a professional sports franchise or for acquiring, constructing, repairing, or improving a facility used by a state university.
Eliminates the 75 percent dedication of the 1 percent car rental tax to public stadium facilities for all counties except King County.
The truth is the whole funding scheme put together to build Safeco Stadium back in 1995 left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Washington residents. A sizeable number of Washingtonians believed the tax package was rushed through and resulted in a ball field for millionaires financed on the backs of the poor and the working class. They blame the Legislature, which authorized the financing package for the new baseball stadium in Seattle and King County officials who put the tax package in place.
The state’s contribution included a credit against the state sales tax on retail sales in King County, sports-themed lottery revenues and commemorative ballpark license plates. King County was authorized to impose a series of taxes on restaurant food and beverages, car rentals, and gate admissions.
Most of the taxes – as promised – are to expire when the construction bonds are paid off.
Orwall’s legislation continues taxes beyond their expiration dates, and redirects the revenue to housing, tourism and the other specified uses. Again, we don’t have problems with those programs and would argue that they are sound economic development investments.
Where we take issue is with lawmakers who seem eager to back away from their word. Breaking a promise severs the bond of trust between elected officials and those they serve. Lawmakers must respect that bond and honor the promises they have made by letting the stadium-related taxes expire on schedule.