Rhodes: Washington State’s Citizen-Led Referenda are an Advantage for Solving Local Problems
During our recent visit to Seattle through the Economy League's Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange, we heard about the challenges and successes experienced by civic leaders there in addressing local needs such as transportation, homelessness, and affordable housing. We listened to civic leaders from Seattle and Tacoma discuss their very regressive state and local taxing authority under Washington state law and their collective approaches to solving issues at the local and regional level.
How regressive, you might ask? Apparently the most regressive in the nation according to the influential Governing Magazine. With no state income tax, local governments in Washington State rely on sales and property tax levies to fund most local government services and public infrastructure.
That challenge for civic leaders in Seattle is an experience closely shared by municipal officials here at home in southeastern Pennsylvania. Governing notes that the Pennsylvania’s state and local taxing authorities are only slightly less regressive than Washington’s; though PA has a state income tax, it is flat and therefore regressive.
Seattle residents have one critical advantage that residents in and around Philadelphia do not enjoy. They make liberal use of the ballot box to vote on citizen-led referenda to decide if and how they want to tax themselves at the local and regional level.
The Pennsylvania Constitution does not allow citizen-led referenda on local option taxation, so even if residents in municipalities in southeastern Pennsylvania share a collective will to fund public services, critical infrastructure like transportation, or local economic development initiatives, we have to seek permission from the elected officials in Harrisburg through the enactment of legislation granting us specific authority to hold a voter referendum for a new local or regional tax initiative. Absent a financial crisis that garners the attention of our legislators and Governor, taxpayers in Pennsylvania cannot decide if and how we tax ourselves at the local and regional level to solve our local problems. This hamstrings our forward-thinking civic leaders, who may be in the best position to choose, with input from their local constituents, our priorities in funding local government services and infrastructure.
Bill Rhodes is a Partner at Ballard Spahr and a member of the Economy League Board of Directors.