Washington State Budget Should Work for the People

By Sandra VanderVen There are lots of things people can and should do on their own, and there are many things that make sense for us to do as a community.  Together we decide what these things are, and our government’s role is to translate these values into action. That is why, in the past, our budget has invested in early childhood education, K-12 schools, higher education, health care and human services, and transportation.

A recession adds challenges to our task, it’s clear that we need money to uphold the values we ask our government to carry out. I spoke with Kim Justice, a Policy Analyst with the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, she told me Washington State spends about 30 billion dollars in tax revenues every year to provide the public services that matter most to us. But because of the recession, people are earning less, buying less and paying less in sales tax—which means less money for the public services on which we all rely.  In 2009, we were 13 billion dollars short. It didn’t stop there. We’ve seen big dips in revenue every year since, and so far there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

From my point of view, our values haven’t changed, so we should look for fair and stable ways to pay for the services that we need to keep Washington State’s families healthy and ready to earn a living. Unfortunately, that’s not how everyone sees it.

In 2010, voters passed Initiative 1053, which forces the legislature to achieve a nearly-impossible 2/3 majority in order to raise any revenue, whether by raising taxes on the rich or closing corporate tax loopholes. The law puts veto power over our values in the hands of just 17 legislators (or one-third of the state Senate). The effect is that we are out of revenue, which means our public services are getting slashed and our people are suffering.

Was that the intention of the voters?  To me, that would be a stretch.

Instead of finding ways to fund the services—education and job skills training, health care for our most vulnerable and police and fire protection—that are crucial to our economic recovery, the legislature has addressed 90% of the budget shortfall with cuts and more cuts.

In 15 years, kids who didn’t have access to early childhood education will enter the job market, but will they have the skills they need to get the job done? If our education system doesn’t produce workers who are qualified for the jobs that are available, employers will offer those jobs elsewhere. Some lucky kids will make it all the way through high school and will be ready to go to college, but how many of them can cover the cost of tuition? How many employers will stay in a place without a well-educated workforce?

It isn’t just education that is suffering. Right now, there’s a waiting list of 150,000 Washingtonians who need health care coverage and can’t afford it. Modest cash support for people with disabilities who can’t work is going away.  Parents are being forced to choose between their job and their children; do they lose their job because they can’t find affordable childcare? Or do they leave their child in an unsafe place so that they can keep their job?

Justice asks, “How can we expect to get out of this recession when we are dismantling the public structures that would help our state recover?”

There is no shortage of options on how to raise revenue, just a lack of political will. The people who represent us in Olympia need to do the work that will keep our state strong, healthy and educated. We can help them come up with the nerve it takes to do the right thing by reminding them as often as possible that they are there to uphold our values.