I've posted a new column at South Dakota Magazine on Initiated Measure 15. The extra-penny sales tax (or, as Steve Sibson would prefer I label it, the 180-million-dollar tax increase) continues to delay the completion of the ballot sitting on my desk. I'm still weighing the multi-faceted arguments for and against it.
One rather abstract argument I've heard is that taxing and budgeting by popular vote is a bad idea. Some IM15 opponents, in an apparent embrace of anti-democratic elitism, contend that the budget is strictly the purview of the Legislature and that we should not circumvent the wise decision-making of our reps in Pierre.
Practically, for 95% of voters, this argument seems like a non-starter. Most folks don't care about the process; they care about the direct costs and benefits of the tax. Show voters the last-minute, slap-dash budget process that harries our legislators after a long session of free drinks and buffets and debates over abortion, guns, astrology, and varmint hunting, and I don't think you'll convince them that the Legislature operates any more rationally than the ballot initiative.
One possible justification for the process argument arose at our dinner table last night. We were debating my sticking point on IM15, whether we can justify funding worthy programs with a regressive tax. I could vote for IM15 more easily if I could be assured that the Legislature would ease the regressive burden by repealing the sales tax on the salad I was enjoying and other groceries. In a normal legislative process, we could wheel and deal like that. We'd go through committees, we could amend the bill as good ideas come up, and we could trade votes and build coalitions to craft a total legislative package that would work well. In the initiative process, we get one bill, immutable language, and one up-or-down vote. If it isn't written right the first time, it goes down, and we don't get a chance to vote on an improved version until the next general election... assuming we can round up another 16,000 signatures to put it on the ballot.
Legislating by initiative is not easy. Initiatives leave out the opportunity for amendment and compromise. But there is such a thing as participatory budgeting, where citizens help craft public budgets. The Internet makes participatory budgeting doable, if we have faith that the people we trust to elect legislators can also be trusted to with decisions about how to spend their tax dollars.
Opponents to Initiated Measure 15 contend that the initiative process is too democratic, that budget decisions belong in the hands of the higher-ups, not the people. I contend that the initiative process is not democratic enough. The initiative empowers the people to exercise limited legislative powers to propose and enact legislation. We should use the Internet to expand those legislative powers to allow citizens to formally discuss and amend legislation before casting the final vote in November. Such a participatory process would allow those of us with concerns about IM15 to propose changes like exemptions on food or other necessities that could make the legislation more palatable to a majority of voters and more effective in serving the needs of South Dakota.
But again, that's a discussion of process, not the merits of IM15 itself.