(May 22, 2013) –It’s the job of the Legislature to make sure our kids get a good education, open the doors to higher education, keep us safe at home and on our roads, and to maintain parks for our recreation, enjoyment, and quality of life. It takes money to do this. So how’s the Legislature doing now?
I checked out the Legislature last week. It was a sleepy place, with few legislators, not many more lobbyists, and a sense that nothing was moving. The budget impasse has left public services, like parks, education, and health care, in limbo.
But that’s not because an absence of budget proposals. Both the House and the Senate have developed proposals. It is because budget negotiations are going nowhere.
The Senate wants to continue business as usual, endorsing what has happened in the past five years of recession and stagnation: Tuition doubled at the University of Washington, so now one year costs close to a quarter of the income for a typical middle class family. Tuition increased by half again at the community colleges. In K-12, the successful initiatives to reduce class size, fund pre-kindergarten, and make sure teachers get a COLA to keep up with inflation have all been abandoned by the Legislature. In early learning, the career ladder for teachers — that the Legislature made state law in 2005 — has been unfunded for three years.
We are not going to get out of this squeeze on public services and education in one year, or two years, or three. What irks about the Senate proposal is they don’t seem to want to get out of it at all.
In contrast, the House took a big breath and voted to close some tax loopholes and maintain some small taxes. This doesn’t create a landslide of funding, but it does get us going in the right direction. These proposals will bring in a little more than $600 million a year. They extend a tax on lobbyists and lawyers. They close a tax loophole that benefits the wealthiest high tech corporations in the world, including Microsoft and Amazon. They end an accidental loophole that has generated millions of dollars for the global oil giants like BP. Altogether, these adjustments bring in 3 percent of the state budget.
Where does that money go? Education, higher education, health care, and home health care for the elderly, disabled, and infirm. Sure, these are baby steps to rebuilding the social contract with Washington’s citizens, but they are steps in the right direction. At least the House is trying to lessen the financial barriers to public higher education. At least it admits that the Legislature has to meet the constitutional requirements for K-12 education with new funding, not rhetoric or magical budget maneuvers.
But the Senate, rather than closing tax loopholes, has created even more! Rather than write an honest budget with real money, the Senate is uses accounting gimmicks. And rather than close a loophole created by the courts that benefits only a handful of already very wealthy sons and daughters, the Senate ignored it. For Senate Leader Rodney Tom, a Democrat/Republican from Bellevue (he can’t seem to decide which he is), and his Republican allies, it was much more worthy to protect the privilege of the inheritors of wealth rather than actually pave the way for middle class kids to get a chance at higher education.
Everyone seems to be hoping the Revenue Forecast Council will pull a rabbit out of its hat in mid-June, and make writing a budget a weekend holiday. That won’t happen. We have lost too much is the past five years. We have to take conscious small steps forward. It will take time — years and decades. That is how long the state has whittled away at government funding, diminishing K-12 , higher education, basic health care.
What’s important is that we choose to go forward, not endorse the current and continuing diminishment of public services, which can only undermine our quality of life and opportunity in our state. In the special session, that’s a pathway for progress. It is not earth-shaking, but it is progress. Let’s hope the Senate will join in negotiating this pathway with the House.