Legislators in Olympia finally came up with a budget on Friday, June 28, avoiding, by about an hour, a situation where state workers would have gone home for the weekend not knowing whether they’d have jobs Monday morning or an unprecedented shutdown of state government.
After a 90-day regular session and two special sessions, it seemed like pointless drama: The final agreed-upon budget was the same sort of Band-Aid fix to permanent problems as in recent years. The real story was not just the budget specifics, but why all the drama happened in the first place.
Surprise, surprise — to no one
This year’s revenue shortfall came as no surprise; it was similar to those of the last several years. There are many reasons this keeps happening. The biggest is our state’s antiquated tax system, with its lack of an income tax and its heavy reliance on sales and property taxes. Those sources are far more susceptible to boom and bust times than an income tax.
They’re also far more regressive: Poorer people pay far more in sales taxes (as a percentage of income) than wealthier ones — the exact opposite of what should happen in a progressive tax system. Washington state’s tax system desperately needs a complete overhaul.
But the biggest problem is that our tax system was designed for the 19th century, not the 21st. Our modern economy relies more and more heavily each year on services and less on manufacturing and retail sales.
Each year, the state taxes less and less of its overall economy. Revenue will continue to come up short each year, even as the economy improves, unless we either raise tax rates or have the state government stop doing many of the things we expect state governments to do.
Democrats in Olympia want the former; Republicans, the latter. But we’ve had plenty of years with projected revenue shortfalls before. What’s led to the unprecedented situation of this year’s potential shutdown is that one of these parties (the Republican caucus) has become so extreme and ideologically rigid that they’re completely hostile to the sort of compromise that makes legislation possible.
Democrats in Olympia have been cutting budgets for years and have continued this year to offer deep budget cuts as part of the negotiating process. But with no good places left to cut, they wanted new revenues and an end to some particularly egregious examples of idiotic, unproductive corporate tax loopholes.
Republicans refused to even entertain the possibility. They won: Almost all of the loopholes and corporate welfare stayed. Parents, teachers and capital infrastructure lost instead.
The other new factor: Even though Republicans have neither the governor’s mansion nor a majority in either legislative chamber, they managed to grind the budget process to a halt. That’s thanks to the defection of two conservative Democratic senators, giving Republicans control of the state Senate.
One of those defectors, Sen. Rodney Tom (48th District-Medina), was originally elected as a Republican but jumped to the Democrats in 2006. His statement then is, in retrospect, laughable: “I realized the far-right has complete control of the party, and for me to be effective for my constituents, I need to be a Democrat.”
Yet, this year, he jumped back in all but name, in exchange for being named Senate majority leader of a Republican-controlled Senate — even though today’s Republican Party is far more radical, intransigent and reality-challenged than in 2006 (that’s not a low bar). Tom’s switch put those radicals in control of every Senate committee, including the ones considering the budget.
What’s (who’s) at stake
The situation is even worse for local programs. Not only is our Legislature (much like Congress in the other Washington) paralyzed by people who seem to think shutting down government is a fine idea, but that same caucus — joined by more than a few Democrats has an enormous resentment of liberal Seattle’s economic and cultural dominance of our state.
Thus, Olympia sits on its hands, rather than taking a routine, cost-free step to avoid serious cuts to public transit.
Thus, the endless, acrimonious process over replacing the Alaskan Way viaduct (a state highway).
Thus, Mayor Mike McGinn’s failed proposal for building a light-rail link to Ballard without state funding.
It hasn’t helped that, for the last decade, Seattle’s mayors have had terrible relations with Olympia and that few of our city’s state legislators seem able to work constructively with the rest of the state.
Put it all together and, just as with Congress, Olympia is broken.
The legislators involved, of course, emerged from this year’s budget crisis just fine. Incumbent state legislators have exceptional job security.
But for those many thousands of us who rely on critical state services, the stakes are quite a bit higher. It’s easy to be an intransigent ideologue when there’s nothing personal at stake.
GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on “Mind Over Matters” on KEXP 90.3 FM. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.[[In-content Ad]]