Taxpayers get a free lunch of subtraction stew

In the classic children’s novel Phantom Tollbooth, the hero Milo meets the Mathemagician, an impressive man who carries a giant pencil that he uses as a wand. The Mathemagician invites Milo and his friends to a lunch of subtraction stew, which makes them hungrier rather than fuller with each bowl.

Lately, that seems to be meal we’re serving ourselves. Case in point: Washington’s ferry system.

Bowl (minus) 1: Voters repeal the state car-tab tax through Initiative 695 in 1999. The state transportation agency boosts fares to help make up the difference. The tax had provided about 22 percent of the ferry system’s operating revenue and about 77 percent of its capital budget. On the Seattle-to-Bainbridge Island route, for example, passenger fares have jumped 81 percent since 2000, from $3.70 to $6.70.

Bowl (minus) 2: Predictably, ridership declines – almost every year for the past eight years, down about 11 percent overall since 2000. Newly revised projections, based on expected population and employment growth, now suggest ridership will increase at less than half the rate previously forecast over same time period. Revenue declines further.

Bowl (minus) 3: With no new boats built in nearly a decade, aging vessels (remember the cuts in capital budgets?) cause problems on runs throughout the system. Since no backup boats are available, vessels must be shifted between routes and service is often affected. Business delays and declines in tourism add up.

Who was it who said cutting car tabs would create consumer spending that would increase sales tax revenues?

The Mathemagicians would have us believe the problem is the state isn’t hungry or lean enough. The truth is we’re starving ourselves of the very services – funded by public dollars – that generate economic growth and create shared prosperity in our communities.

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