Olympia’s focus should be on needs, not wants

Anemic retail sales this holiday season reveal a public that’s focused on needs, not wants. People in fear of losing their jobs are in survival mode, putting off purchases that in tough times like these seem indulgent.

The Legislature, which convenes Jan. 12, should follow that lead. A $6 billion budget shortfall will require deep and painful cuts to education, health care and other important needs. It’s the wrong time to commit public money to luxuries, which includes sports stadiums.

Proposals are in the pipeline to collect taxes for major renovations of Husky Stadium and KeyArena. Both have points in their favor — such buildings stimulate economic activity, once construction is under way they create jobs, they are points of civic pride. But this year, the timing is off. Way off.

The University of Washington and Husky football boosters are seeking $150 million from revenues that helped build the glitzy homes of the Mariners and Seahawks. The UW would raise another $150 million from private sources.

The city of Seattle wants legislative authority to tap into a city-only hotel tax to raise $75 million toward a $300 million remodel of KeyArena, hoping to draw a pro basketball team to replace the Sonics, who left for nicer digs in Oklahoma City. The rest of the money would come from owners of a new team and admission taxes.

Husky Stadium is a valued public asset that does eventually need to be upgraded. How, though, can such a public investment be justified at a time when the state’s universities are being asked to slash budgets by 13 percent? Plus, Washington State University is midway throu gh $40 million in upgrades to its football stadium, all of which is being raised through private donations and student fees. There’s a fairness issue to be considered.

We’d love to see the NBA return to Seattle one day, but the city needs to look harder at ways to do remodel its arena without tapping taxes that could be put to more important uses.

There is no shortage of ideas for creating new local-option taxing districts, like the ones that fund transit agencies. Voters could be asked to tax themselves to help clean up Puget Sound in the coming years, and state Sen. Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens has proposed creating a taxing district in Snohomish County to fund a new four-year university here.

The well of potential taxes isn’t bottomless, however. In times like these, ideas that would spend them on relative luxuries shouldn’t rise to the surface.

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