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We must invest in post-COVID Washington

If state lawmakers choose austerity budget cuts in 2021, they will harm our quality of life and prop up a rigged, unethical tax code



(Dec. 14, 2020) — This week, Washington is expected to receive its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines. It will take months for all of us to get vaccinated and, appropriately, high-risk health care workers are at the front of the line. Although we must remain vigilant by continuing to maintain distance, wear masks and take other sensible precautions, after more than nine months of COVID-19, there is finally a sense of hope emerging. There’s a light at the end of this tunnel.

It has me thinking about post-COVID Washington. When we look back on this deadly pandemic that cost thousands of Washingtonians their lives, how will we remember our state’s response when we were called to make shared sacrifice?

There are certainly those who have bristled at the restrictions on businesses and public gatherings taken by Gov. Jay Inslee. Many workers in our state have temporarily lost their livelihoods as a result. But I believe that when we look back on this, if we are being honest with ourselves, we will know that the economic hardship, social isolation and daily inconveniences saved many lives. I believe the governor has been guided by science and health experts — by what’s best for all of us and not by what would have been politically expedient — and that history will judge his actions as appropriate and necessary.

Next month, for the first time since the early days of this pandemic, the Washington State Legislature will convene for its 2021 session. Among other things, legislators will face a multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall for the 2021-23 biennial budget as a result of the pandemic. How will history judge their response?

Some are calling on legislators to simply cut away at essential public services to balance the budget. The Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO will be joining our affiliated unions and many others in urging against that destructive course of action. Instead, we are calling on state lawmakers to fix our rigged tax code so the wealthiest corporations and people among us, many of whom have continued to rake in windfall profits throughout COVID-19, finally begin paying their fair share. That way we can avoid cutting essential public services when we need them most.

Right now, working people and small businesses in Washington state are suffering the most. At the same time, they are paying the most in taxes thanks to the nation’s worst and most regressive tax system. Washington forces those among us who earn the least to pay the biggest percentage of their incomes in taxes while the wealthiest pay the least.

Meanwhile, the richest people in this state have watched their fortunes continue to grow amid COVID-19. At the extreme, Washington’s resident billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates have watched their already-massive fortunes grow exponentially. (Bezos alone could personally pay the state’s entire $53.3 billion operating budget for 2019-21 and still have more money left than he did when COVID-19 struck in February.) The rest of Washington’s most fortunate families have also watched their wealth continue to grow with the stock market during the pandemic.

If our state legislators choose austerity and simply cut public services to balance the budget, they are choosing to prop up Washington’s unethical, corrupt tax system that protects the rich and squeezes the poor. At the worst possible time, they will be doing what is politically expedient rather than what is appropriate and necessary.

Bottom line: we are all here because Washington state is a great place to live, work and raise a family. People of all races, in every corner of this state, work hard for our families. And many of us are active in our communities because we understand that when we invest in each other, we all thrive and benefit. But giant, profitable corporations and the wealthy few have rigged our state tax code to avoid their obligations to the rest of us. They pit us against each other when they call for austerity budget cuts, and they continue to reap their profits while refusing to pay their fair share.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can join together and call on our state lawmakers to do the right thing for Washingtonians. We can fix our tax code and ensure we all have access to the great schools, affordable health care, and community services that our families need.

That’s the Washington we want. That’s the Washington we need when we emerge from this horrible pandemic.

Larry Brown is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, which represents more than 600 union organizations with 550,000 rank-and-file members. He is also an Auburn city councilman.

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