(Originally published in the Slog, Jan. 12, 2012)
For many good reasons, elected officials rarely talk about how they feel. It’s just not done. But I’m going to break that rule. I am angry, and I want people to know it. Why? Because a multitude of the most vulnerable among us are soon going to find themselves in horribly gut-wrenching situations.
Mothers with young children may become homeless, if they haven’t already done so, because their welfare checks will again be reduced or eliminated altogether. Disabled adults will be unable to pay for health care they desperately need. Severely mentally ill individuals may find the treatment that keeps them functioning has been completely cut off. And class sizes for our children will likely increase as funding for their education is decreased.
I’m angry because this doesn’t have to happen. It is happening, and it is only going to get worse, because our state simply doesn’t have the revenue to pay for important services. In fact, Washington has just fallen into the lowest-third in the nation in terms of the taxes individuals pay. That means people in 34 other states pay more than we do per person.
Washington is not a poor state. There is plenty of wealth here.
Compared to the national average, we have a smaller share of households making less than $50,000 a year and a higher number of households in the $50,000 to $200,000 income bracket. We are also lucky enough to have a fairly educated populace, one which believes in the value of education and the moral obligation to help a neighbor in need. So how did we get ourselves into this situation?
Most people believe the dramatic drop in revenue is caused by our Great Recession, and I wouldn’t disagree. But our situation is also caused by numerous other factors, all woven together to create mayhem.
People want government services, but don’t want to pay taxes for them. As evidence, I offer the votes on three initiatives in the last decade: proposals that mandate smaller class sizes, higher teacher salaries, and more training for those who work with seniors. Combined, these initiatives would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet there were no funding sources designated to pay for them. Also at the ballot box recently, people voted down a millionaire’s tax and the tax on candy and soda. Together, these taxes would have blunted the worst of the cuts.
On top of that, the hands of the Legislature have been tied by passage of Initiative 1053. For all practical purposes, I-1053 forces a vote of the people every single time the Legislature needs to pass a new tax or even close a tax loophole. In an economic crisis, that’s just not a wise move. You see, putting these decisions before voters takes time while cuts in critical services must be made.
But that’s not all. Anyone familiar with the funding of initiatives knows that the folks with big money have the best chance of convincing the public to see things their way. So if the legislature asks voters to cut specific tax breaks, we know that corporations that stand to lose tax breaks will fight like crazy to get the public to vote their way.
It seems the majority of voters are confused or unaware about the influential role initiatives have in our budget process and how the passage or failure of a single proposal can make a crippling crisis even worse. Many advocacy organizations add to this uncertainty by leading the public to believe that all lawmakers need to do is close tax loopholes. When cuts are made to counteract choices at the polls, cries of “How could they?!” will be heard throughout the state and the legislature will be blamed once again. The irony is that very few legislators actually want to make these cuts. After slashing almost $11 billion from the state budget, we will likely have to make another $1.5 billion in cuts.
Perhaps it’s time for some reflection and analysis that will lead to more reasonable and productive decision making by voters in the future. Maybe it’s time for the public to stop voting for costly initiatives that have no funding sources. Perhaps it’s time to loosen the ropes that bind the legislature, especially in times of fiscal crisis. And maybe it’s time, despite the Supreme Court’s destructive decision in the US vs. Citizens United, to figure out a way at the ballot box to better balance the interests of the people with those of big money.
State Representative Mary Lou Dickerson, who represents Queen Anne, Magnolia, and Ballard, is chair of the Health & Human Services Appropriations Committee.