The C Is for Crank

A couple of weeks ago, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat argued that the April Metro funding measure failed because it merely preserved existing service, instead of "add[ing] buses or speedier rides to more places." Similarly, he argued at the time, voters could hardly be expected to get "excited" about the follow-up proposal, November's Prop. 1, which was merely "a campaign to preserve the status quo" rather than adding new service.

Westneat (who, in an earlier column, claimed to have repeatedly seen riders "lined up ... three dozen deep" at a single bus stop) continued by arguing that Metro should respond to the "good news" that the agency no longer needed to cut quite as much service as anticipated by coming up with a plan that "actually spells out tangible improvements to how we get around."

Now, despite even more rosy budgeting projections from Metro, Westneat no longer supports expanding bus service; instead, he argues that voters should oppose the latest version of Proposition 1 because Metro (according to the county council, anyway) can preserve existing service without asking voters for new revenue. "We can do better" than the latest proposal to expand transit service, Westneat argues, suggesting that a countywide vote (much like the countywide vote he argued against just weeks ago) is the answer.

Ultimately, Westneat is making the same old Republican case against taxes disguised as an argument for fiscal responsibility: We can't trust the government with our money, so any tax proposal is inherently suspect.

Adopting an argument in his latest column that's almost identical to the one relentlessly espoused by the Times’ editorial board, Westneat says King County has been exaggerating its financial problems, and that “efficiencies” (or also, in Westneat’s words, “a hunt for loose change in the sofa”), combined with an improving economy, have turned out, just like the Seattle Times claimed, to be more than enough to stave off transit cuts. Turns out corrupt officials—the same “wasteful government” straw men the Times hauls outand lights on fire every time a government agency asks voters for a tax increase—were to blame all along!

The Times' editorial board referred to the economic recovery as a welcome "trampoline rebound" for Metro, without following the metaphor through: As with trampolines, economies that go up tend to come back down.

Touting, in this latest column, the “stunning news” that “the Metro bus financing crisis apparently is over,” Westneat calls the latest bus-funding proposal a “panicked blank check” that, you guessed it, voters should reject until yet another, utterly hypothetical “better” proposal comes along.

But hold on a second. That “stunning news” was actually an announcement by King County Council members—headed by Rod Dembowski, the Democrat who, along with four Republican colleagues, voted to put off the planned February cuts in the first place—that they plan to backfill some proposed Metro cuts by dipping into reserve money the county prudently set aside for emergency use during the next recession.

The Times' editorial board referred to the economic recovery as a welcome "trampoline rebound" for Metro, without following the metaphor through: As with trampolines, economies that go up tend to come back down.

Voices of caution have mostly been silenced by irrational exuberance, but the warning signs are already there: Even dipping into the county's reserves was not enough to save any of the 28 routes that have been eliminated, or the 23 whose service has been reduced. And Democrats on the council argued that Dembowki's original, less drastic, plan to avoid cuts merely put off the tough financial decisions until the next recession.

Just yesterday, King County Executive Dow Constantine, whose budget cuts more than 500 county jobs (thanks to a Tim Eyman-backed cap on property tax increases that the Times also supported), has asked the council to put on the brakes, arguing that “it is not prudent to risk the long-term financial stability of Metro” to preserve Metro service in the short run without a long-term plan.

“Spending one-time money to sustain service now would likely result in substantial deficits and even deeper service cuts later,” Constantine continued. “Because of Metro’s highly volatile revenue source, we should not base our current actions on the risky assumption that our region will not experience another recession in the future.”

Constantine’s caution is based on experience: Recessions come in cycles, and when government doesn’t prepare for them, cuts to services that could have been modest often become drastic. Westneat’s argument, in contrast, is based on misplaced optimism and a cynical lack of trust in government: Obviously, they’re hiding something, so vote against whatever they propose until they come up with a perfect plan that expands bus service while costing voters nothing. If voters choose that path, they’ll be waiting a long time at the bus stop.
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