Connect with us


A legislative session spin to make our heads spin

By Brendan Williams

Perhaps not since British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain famously heralded the 1938 Munich Agreement, surrendering Czechoslovakia to Germany as bringing “peace with honor” have so many superlatives been applied to defeat as have been to this past legislative session.

For example, we hear the Basic Health Plan was “saved.”  Never mind that Oregon, roughly three-fifths Washington’s size, will maintain around 75,000 enrollees in its Oregon Health Plan Standard (a doubling of enrollment in the past year) while Washington’s BHP enrollment plunges to 33,000.  “Peace in our time!”

Higher education was “transformed” through enormous cuts coupled with tuition increases – a fact celebrated with two companies, Boeing and Microsoft, at a high-fiving bill signing.  Each will contribute $5 million a year for five years to scholarships.

While that charity is nice, these companies enjoy our state’s most preferential tax treatment.  They, and big-giving corporate officers, opposed tax equity Initiative 1098 – which might have positively transformed higher education.

Farcically, that inconvenient truth, brought up by the media at the bill signing, was sternly hushed so as to not spoil the celebration.

Each company will easily divert future new millions from their workers through workers’ compensation changes they pushed through this year.  Microsoft, with$18.8 billion in profits last year, also stands to gain $4 million from a new educational software “partnership” with the state (even the Seattle Times found that incongruous as K-12 education is slashed).  And yet it was the two companies, and not students who will pay more for less, that were effusively thanked on behalf of taxpayers.

What’s the message?

The self-satisfied consensus is the session was “historic.”  And the term is not used negatively – as in a session that shall live in infamy.  The governor gave it an “A.”  The all-cuts approach is labeled “bold.”  In his floor speech, one Democratic senator compared the all-cuts budget to the lunar landing.  Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt called the session a “phenomenal ride.”

In 135 days of session the narrative changed dramatically.  In December, the governor declared, “I hate my budget.”  Yet, after a March forecast blew another $780 million hole in revenue, politicians have tripped over one another to praise, and take credit for, a much-worse budget.  Even self-identified liberals felt “really good” about the budget and how it “saved” programs.  Those daring to say otherwise face censure and retaliation.

Even policy defeats – Hewitt says Republicans “did drive a tremendous amount of policy”including a workers’ compensation bill an anti-labor House Republican describes as a “huge” win – are spun as “bipartisanship.”  Down is up.  Bad is good.  Defeat is victory.

Ironically, some of the budget’s key players, such as Senate budget chair Ed Murray, are more tempered.  With his inimitable candor, Murray acknowledged to The Stranger that “Democrats have done a pretty piss-poor job of telling the story of why we need more taxes.”  Spinning cuts as positives wouldn’t help Murray’s task.

For others, perhaps it’s the Stockholm syndrome.  Held captive by low expectations – and isolated by taking meals only with business lobbyists or in a taxpayer-subsidized dining room – politicians eventually love their captors.

As the expert Frank Ochberg has written, at the outset of the Stockholm syndrome “there is a sudden, terrifying capture.”

Let’s equate that to passage of tax-avoiding Initiative 1053 and tax-cutting Initiative 1107.

Following that, “The hostage is stunned, shocked and often certain that he or she will die.”

In other words, they hate their budgets.

“The hostage then becomes like an infant.”

That’s as apt a description of hierarchical politics as I’ve seen.

Over time, however (perhaps as little as 135 days), the hostage develops “a primitive gratitude for the gift of life, an emotion that eventually develops and differentiates into varieties of affection and love.”

And so it is that a budget process originally inspiring hate eventually blossoms into love.

Key to this transformation, Ochberg writes, are small kindnesses from one’s captors.

One such kindness was the theater of a House vote on closing a tax loophole for banks.  The majority vote failed under I-1053.  While a teaching moment, and testament to the fortitude of some great House freshmen, it did not change the budget for the better.  Nor will it.

In a 1994 case, the Washington Supreme Court punted on the “essentially political dispute” over the constitutionality of Initiative 601’s two-thirds requirement for raising taxes.  The court would not “render advisory opinions or pronouncements upon abstract or speculative questions.”

Since that decision, Tim Eyman’s former attorney, Jim Johnson, joined the court and exerts formidable influence there.

Having been a plaintiff in the I-601 case, and later clerked at the court, I’m comfortable predicting the court would dodge the question of whether I-1053 was unconstitutional – simply because it can easily be argued that, even without I-1053, there’s no way on God’s green Earth the Senate would have raised taxes (a fact Murray acknowledges with respect to tax loopholes).  Thus, to take too much comfort in a failed House vote is to avoid a reality likely to persist.  Plus how would even a positive ruling change voters’ hearts and minds?

With revenue likely to further decline in the June forecast, progressives must demand legislators give voters the choice to close tax loopholes.  Further, progressives must give legislators the support to lead.

Given the no-new-taxes pledge all Republicans, and a growing number of Democrats, are making, is it unreasonable for progressives to ask some legislators to promise to vote against a no-new-taxes budget?

I recall the sinking feeling I felt when the 2009 all-cuts budget was rebranded, on the House floor, as “cuts with a conscience” just days after a half-hearted revenue effort failed in which those same cuts were portrayed as deadly.

Unless we develop a consistent message that cuts harm, and even kill – which will take liberal protest votes – the public will continue to feel deceived by the political class’s sky-is-falling rhetoric against Eyman initiatives.  And so they’ll keep voting to starve government.

As Chamberlain noted, “The path which leads to appeasement is long and bristles with obstacles.”  So what is the real legacy of I-1053 and I-1107?  Killer cuts or “saved” programs?  The public answer may dictate what new horrors pass this fall, and whether the only real spin becomes politicians spinning down the drain after Tim Eyman.

Brendan Williams is a former State Representative from the 22nd Legislative District.

CHECK OUT THE UNION DIFFERENCE in Washington: higher wages, affordable health and dental care, job and retirement security.

FIND OUT HOW TO JOIN TOGETHER with your co-workers to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and a voice at work. Or go ahead and contact a union organizer today!