It is a blank check–send it back to the drawing board
If you live in Spokane County you will receive a ballot with (at least) one ballot measure: Measure 1, asking the voters to approve an increase in county-wide sales tax to be used for any of a wide range of purposes related to policing, incarceration, criminal justice, and “behavioral health”. (Note: this is NOT City of Spokane’s Proposition 1—Prop 1 relates to criminalizing homelessness within the city.)
Measure 1 is written to sound as though it would provide money for Spokane County and city governments within the county for efforts to improve criminal justice and behavioral health systems, but those are just among the efforts that could be funded. In failing to clearly state what portions of the new tax revenues would go to what purpose Measure 1 constitutes a blank check. The enabling legislation for Measure 1, Resolution No. 22-0824, was passed on December 13, 2022, solely by Spokane County Commissioners Al French and Josh Kerns—just eighteen days before the Spokane County Board of County Commissioners was expanded to five members from three. Commissioner Kuney was out of town. Nonetheless, within the three commissioner system, two commissioners constitutes a quorum for business. Here is the complete text of Resolution No. 22-0824 as originally passed by French and Kerns:
In the matter of calling an Election within Spokane County to be held on Tuesday, November 7, 2023, and submitting to Electors a Proposition to impose a Two-Tenths of One Percent (0.2%) Sales and Use Tax equal throughout Spokane County, as authorized by RCW 82.14.450, the proceeds to be used by the County, Cities and Towns within Spokane County for Criminal Justice, Public Safety, and Behavioral Health purposes.
Notice that, as passed, there is no mention whatsoever of building a new county jail or remodeling the old one. Nine different local organizations petitioned the Superior Court of Spokane County to require that the ballot language of Measure 1 acknowledge that money from this new sales tax would be, at least in part, spent on “building and improving jails or correctional facilities”. On Tuesday, August 29th, Superior Court Judge Tony Hazel ruled in favor of the petitioners. That’s what it took to overcome the original obfuscatory language of French and Kerns.
So that fixes it, right? Not so fast. A huge amount of ink and electrons has been spilled on how various people and officials imagine the proceeds of this new tax will be used, but Measure 1’s only specifics are these, quoted directly from the Measure 1 language we voters are asked to approve. (See the whole text copied at the bottom of this post.):
…to be used by the County and Cities and Towns within Spokane County for criminal justice, public safety, and behavioral health purposes, including building and improving jails or correctional facilities
How much will be spent on a new jail? How much on a remodel of the current jail? How much on hiring more police or providing them with equipment (covered under “public safety”)? How much will be left over to spend on all the non-jail, non-police, criminal justice and “behavioral health” purposes? Measure 1 is silent. Measure 1 is a blank check to be filled in later by what are often the out-of-sight, out-of-mind majority votes of the County Commissioners and majority votes of the various municipal entities that will (by state law, RCW 82.14.450) receive 40% of the proceeds.
Measure 1 is a provocative action by two conservative county commissioners in the waning days of the three member commission. It was intentionally vague in its first incarnation and it remains vague in its litigated form. Vote NO on Measure 1—and ask the Commissioners to go back to the drawing board and provide us with a proposal that specifies how the money will be apportioned between punitive and smart justice alternatives. Then, and only then, will I consider voting in favor.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. The “Explanatory Statement” in the voters guide (click it to read) makes it sound as though Commissioners French and Kerns had spent a great deal of time parsing out a variety of details to put in Measure 1. Why, one might ask, did they decide to apportion 60% of the proceeds to Spokane County and 40% (on a per capita basis) to the cities and towns of Spokane County? Why are certain motor vehicle purchases and leases exempt from the new tax? It turns out that all of that detail comes right out of the Revised Code of Washington, i.e. Washington State law, passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor in times past. Click RCW 82.14.450 to see the actual law that governs sales and use tax ballot measures that can be used by county governments in Washington State to raise money. Note that the RCW specifies that such ballot measures “must clearly state the purposes for which the proposed sales and use tax will be used”. It is fair to argue that French and Kerns’ Measure 1, even as modified by litigation, should fail based on the lack of such a “clear statement” alone.
Here’s the amended Measure 1 text, right out of the Voters’ Guide
[I’ve added relevant hyperlinks to basic documents. The hyperlinks are underlined.]:
Measure No. 1
Two-Tenths of One Percent Sales and Use Tax for Criminal Justice, Public Safety, Correctional Infrastructure, and Behavioral Health Purposes
The Board of County Commissioners adopted Resolution No. 22-0824concerning a sales and use tax increase pursuant to RCW 82.14.450.
If approved the County may impose an additional 0.2% county-wide sales and use tax, commencing April 1, 2024, and terminating December 31, 2054, to be used by the County and Cities and Towns within Spokane County for criminal justice, public safety, and behavioral health purposes, including building and improving jails or correctional facilities as provided in Resolution No. 22-0824.
Should this measure be approved?