King County’s criminal justice, public health and roads budgets are squeezed. So why is county executive Dow Constantine asking for a tax hike to pay for arts?

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JUST last month, a group of King County elected officials told The Seattle Times editorial board about the serious cuts in the county’s criminal-justice and public-health systems.

Prosecutor Dan Satterberg described “an era of perpetual cuts” that has cost him 50 staff positions since he took office in 2007. The result is a current 400-case backlog. Presiding King County Superior Court Judge Laura Inveen noted that half of children in child welfare hearings don’t have their own advocate because of a lack of resources to recruit them.

They could have also lamented the state of roads in east King County that have been allowed to return to gravel or become suspension-swallowing potholes. Amid the boom times, the county budget is squeezed by a decade-old cap on property-tax-revenue growth.

Yet with all those needs, King County Executive Dow Constantine is now telling voters that the one service worthy of a special levy this August is arts funding. And it’s a big ask — a 0.1 percent increase in a sales tax already at 10 percent in most of the county, raising a whopping $469 million over seven years. That revenue, it should be noted, comes from an extremely regressive tax.

The goal of Constantine’s proposal is fine. Who doesn’t want more public access to the arts and more arts education in schools?

But Constantine’s timing is terrible, and voters should question his priorities at a time when so many county services — from Satterberg’s staff workload to the catastrophic failure of the West Point sewage plant — are suffering.

King County, as well as most of the state’s cities and counties, are lobbying the state Legislature to raise a cap on their property-tax revenues. Currently, they are limited to increases at 1 percent plus new construction.

That cap was imposed by voters with Initiative 747 in 2001, and then by the Legislature itself in 2007 when I-747 was declared unconstitutional. The cap effectively limits revenue growth to a rate slower than inflation, which is a problem when wages and health-care costs keep going up.

The hue and cry is not just coming from King County. Lincoln County, one of the most conservative in the state, lost 10 percent of its workforce just last year. County Commissioner Scott Hutsell said any more cuts will have to come out of the 11 deputies who patrol 2,400 square miles (four times the size of Rhode Island). “We’ve done cost containment things like you wouldn’t believe,” he said.

Voters are protesting the costs of Sound Transit 3, which Constantine championed. They should be bracing for tax increases likely needed to pay for the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling. And they should listen to elected leaders like Satterberg and Inveen, who say basic county criminal-justice services are suffering.

Amid all that, where should voters rank a big tax increase for arts funding?