Maybe it's something in the water, but there are some screwy ballot proposals popping up these days - none wilder than Spokane's Proposition 4.
Proposition 4 is the brainchild of a group called Envision Spokane, a coalition of left-leaning activists, union members and environmentalists who pooled their wish lists into "a community bill of rights."
Proposition 4 amends the city charter to create an expansive and expensive bundle of vague new rights. For example, Prop. 4 would extend the prevailing wage and apprentice quota requirements to all private construction projects larger than $2 million, as well as to publicly subsidized projects (e.g. low-income housing projects financed with a combination of private and public money). The measure would also extend the wage to all public projects.
It also creates a right to a "locally-based economy," "affordable preventive health care," "affordable and safe housing," and "affordable and renewable energy." People would also have the right to "determine the future of their neighborhoods."
Who will enforce all these vague, undefined new rights? Everybody! Envision Spokane says, "Any person, neighborhood, or neighborhood council ... could file a lawsuit to enforce their rights." Can you say, "endless litigation?"
You wonder if these folks are in touch with reality.
Who is going to pay for all this? One in 10 Washington workers is unemployed. Many others are under employed or have given up looking for work. Where will we get the money to provide all the rights guaranteed by Proposition 4 when employers, including government, schools and non-profits, can't meet payroll today?
Nationally, our deficit has ballooned to about $9 trillion, and many prominent economists see the red ink swelling to $17 trillion in a decade. Our State Legislature could face a $5 billion revenue shortfall - roughly 15 percent - when it writes the next budget in 2011.
So, if tax revenues are dwindling, government is cutting back and employers are laying off people, where will the money come from to pay for all these new rights?
There is no free lunch. Rather than saddle employers and taxpayers with a costly and ambiguous wish list, voters should reject Proposition 4 and urge their elected officials to come up with positive, workable alternatives.
For example, why not provide incentives for local employers to invest and create new jobs? After all, the best way for people to get affordable health care and housing is through jobs.
Think about it.
Private-sector and public-sector employers provide health care. When people have jobs, they have more money to spend on food and housing. As people earn more, their consumer spending will generate local and state tax revenues that fund police, firefighters, teachers and other vital community services.
If the backers of Proposition 4 really want affordable renewable energy, they should urge legislators to amend I-937 to include hydropower and limit the area from which utilities can buy solar and wind power. I-937 was the voter-approved initiative that requires major utilities to get 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. But those who wrote I-937 (the same ones who now say we have a "right" to affordable renewable energy) intentionally left clean, affordable hydropower out of the mix and said wind and solar can only come from sources west of the Rockies and south of Canada.
What is so amazing about grandiose schemes like Proposition 4 is the sponsors seem to be oblivious to the world around them. They haven't even bothered to tally the cost of their wish list.
But the rest of us have to. We - and our children and grandchildren - are already on the hook for our mammoth national debt. Add to that a trillion dollars for health-care reform and trillions more to reduce greenhouse gases. That's just a start.
It's time for a wake-up call. Government needs to protect public safety and provide essential services. It is not the role of government to be our surrogate parents or our nannies.
So while Proposition 4 may apply only to Spokane, it could spread like the flu if voters pass it in November, because what happens in Spokane won't stay in Spokane.
- Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business (www.awb.org).