Month: January 2000

Race to the Bottom

It’s January again and the state legislature is in session. This is an even-numbered year, so it will be a short session of only 60 days (including weekends). There’s a lot of work to be done.

Unfortunately, both parties have gotten off to a bad start. Admittedly, the deck is stacked against them. For one thing, I-695 has forced the legislature to review the biennial budget that was hammered out last year. Normally, the legislature would be making minor adjustments to the budget by moving around unspent funds to programs that desperately need more money. The repeal of the car tab tax, however, means that the bulk of the 60 day session will be taken up with arguments over how the state will bail out local governments and transportation projects. It’s simply not a question of IF the legislature will do this, only HOW; ironically, I-695 passed by an overwhelming majority in rural counties whose governments will eventually go bankrupt without a state bailout.

The two parties’ responses to I-695 have been predictable: they’ve each rushed to prove themselves more right-wing than the other, and in the process have both fallen far, far to the right of the electorate. Without citing any evidence, both parties are declaring I-695 a “wake-up call to reform government.”

Gov. Gary Locke broke the ice in December by announcing a narrow-minded plan to spend extra money on education, ignore everything else, and then cut taxes to give everyone a meaningless $30 rebate. The Democrats quickly followed suit by proposing a disastrous phase out of state property taxes, without any plan to balance the other side of the budget (i.e., how to pay for social programs). The Republicans at least have a two-pronged, if equally dismal, “zero-based budget” plan: cut taxes to the bone, then privatize all state services–except the ones that serve big business, of course. Notably, it’s individual Republicans (whose party supported I-695) who are now lining up to beg the legislature for money to fund road construction to benefit the likes of Microsoft, WaferTech, Boeing, housing developers, and construction companies–we can’t privatize that, of course.

But a recent opinion poll conducted by Hart Research of Washington, D.C.showed that I-695 supporters were simply voting themselves a tax break and, contrary to what Tim Eyman claims, not trying to send a special message to government that it better slim down or else. If anything, the message seems to be: give us some say in what you guys do in Olympia. That’s what the bulk of I-695 does: it forces the state to subject all tax increases to a popular vote. That’s NOT the same as prohibiting all future tax increases or demanding that state property taxes (and thereby many state services) be eliminated, as the Dems and Repubs are assuming.

The truly idiotic thing is that the Democrats are in a good position to mitigate the impact of I-695 on the state government; they have a majority in the Senate, they split the House evenly with the Republicans, and they have a Democratic governor. Unfortunately, that person is Gary Locke. Gov. Jellyfish has been a disaster for the state; if he had taken a principled stand, I-695 might not even be an issue right now. But way back in September of last year, he just shrugged his shoulders and did nothing to help opponents explain how this initiative would impact state services. As a consequence, opponents ran an incompetent campaign, whining about cuts in police services and Metro bus service. How this would go over in rural and suburban areas (with low crime rates and little or no bus service to speak of) was predictable. In fact, the folks who opposed I-695 vastly out-spent Tim Eyman & Co., but they lost the election. Thanks, Gov. Locke, for doing your usual disappearing act.

But Gary Locke bears even more responsibility for the current I-695 fiasco. After its passage, he stunned everyone by refusing to challenge the initiative in court on constitutional grounds, even though the challenge should be an easy one to win. Leaving it up to the Amalgamated Transit Union and a handful of local city governments to take I-695 to court, Locke announced that “the people have spoken,” and he unveiled his short-sighted, pro-education, anti-everything-else, tax-break budget. This clearly set the stage for a race to the bottom between the Dems and the Repubs during this legislative session.

So with that in mind, here’s a short list of some vital problems that should be tackled this year (but probably won’t, because I-695 will dominate the session):

Health insurance. The state’s Basic Health Plan (BHP) remains limping along in limbo. The insurance industry has dominated all discussion of health insurance issues by pushing for the deregulation of the private insurance market. Currently, residents in 31 of Washington’s 39 counties can’t buy new individual health insurance policies because the major insurance carriers have abandoned them. Instead of cutting insurance companies out of the loop by strengthening, amending, and adequately funding the BHP, the legislature is going to gut the state’s requirements for what insurance companies are required to cover in their individual policies.

Public health. Facilities that help out low income folks and the disabled have been shutting down in Clark, Skamania, Pierce, King, Yakama, and other counties because of I-695. Whether or not the state legislature finds a way to restore funding is an open question.

Farmworker housing. Providing decent living quarters for the people who feed us wasn’t resolved in last year’s budget and probably won’t get a hearing this year.

Low income housing. Housing advocates will be trying to hold the line against state legislators who want to steal money from the Housing Trust Fund to finance highway improvements. The fund is one of the few state sources for money to buy and renovate badly needed low income housing.

Welfare reform. Welfare “reform” has dumped a number of single parents and disabled folks into low-paying jobs and created a need for a host of other government services to help low-income working people. It’s likely that none of these issues will be resolved this year: the need for more daycare options for single parents, more transportation and rent subsidies (especially in our skyrocketing housing market), money for those not covered by employer health insurance but who make too much to qualify for Medicaid, and more funds for educational opportunities.

Youth shelters. The state provides about $100,000 of funding for youth shelters–you know, those homes-away-from-home for raped, abused, maligned, and abandoned kids. That money was a one-time budget item last year that needs to be added to the budget again this year. But it’s likely to be overlooked in the scramble to find $29 million in state money to fund new roads for Microsofties buying homes in the Issaquah Highlands.

These are just a few of the important issues that probably won’t get a hearing in the legislature this year, thanks to I-695 and our corporate-serving legislators.

More Hidden Stories

While I agree with most of Geov’s selections for the most overhyped and underrated stories of the year, I have my own additions.

In the overhyped category:

Y2K and JFK Jr. both summed up the stupidity of the U.S. media this year. The Y2K fervor even had its own movie of the week. Next up: an ABC adaptation of “rich guy crashes his plane.”

In the most underrated category:

The media gave us no big picture on the failure of welfare reform. A few years have passed since states enacted welfare reform laws and this year, under public pressure, they began conducting surveys to gauge the success of these changes. Each study, however, has shown a failure to adequately care for and boost the living standards of the poor–and the media has generally ignored the results. What’s emerging is a picture of the poor getting poorer and working families having to decide between eating or paying the utility bills, or between paying for day care or having a roof over their heads. In addition, there’s a growing scandal over state social workers illegally refusing Medicaid to former welfare recipients. It is all happening in silence, because the media is looking the other way. All in all, this is the year’s biggest story.

The U.S. is in a recession, but the media myth is the exact opposite. The media has narrowly focused on the three most manipulated economic indicators in the U.S.: the stock market indices, the figure for official unemployment, and the figure for inflation. You would think that no other economic signs matter. In the real world, inflation is up, corporate profits are way down, underemployment is high, wage erosion continues, healthcare coverage is shrinking, debt levels are rising, there’s a housing crisis nearly everywhere (not just in the Puget Sound region), and the lines at food banks have grown beyond all capacity to deal with them. In addition, even some of the most brainwashed economists and stock brokers admit that the NASDAQ (the media’s market index of the moment) is being grossly inflated by a couple dozen high tech and dotcom companies, whose weighting in the index increases when their stock price soars. In other words, these 20 or so companies (many of whom operate at a loss) account for 99% of the gain in the NASDAQ this year. In the meantime, the stock prices of hundreds of other companies that make up the NASDAQ market are in free-fall (and so are their actual profits). The same is true for companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The economy is not booming, it is bottoming out, but a few shareholders and stockbrokers have found a way to make it look good forever.

The most underrated international stories are:

Large areas of Africa have become the testing grounds for weapons manufacturers from China to the U.S. It’s also where old weapons are dumped on the blackmarket. In the past two decades, millions of African people have died from war, landmines, disease, famine, and displacement. The various African conflicts have also provided a training ground for white mercenaries and privatized armies, and have also provided plenty of fodder for military strategists who study warfare in various terrain: jungle, mountain, river delta, steppe, and desert. In short, the mostly First World military machine is thriving from the destruction of a continent. Meanwhile, Africa almost never makes the headlines, except for the occasional mention of a military coup or a bleeding-heart famine story–both reported without any broad analysis of cause and effect or the responsibility of the West. This is the shame of the U.S. media.

A close second would be how NATO and the U.S. used Kosovo to legalize war against civilian populations. The bombing of schools, hospitals, power plants, sewage and water facilities, government buildings, power lines, the media, and targets that would create gross environmental catastrophe is now legitimate and has now become standard practice in warfare (witness the ongoing destruction of Chechnya by the Russian army). And it wasn’t some evil, Third World dictator who did it. It was us. Where was the U.S. media?

This year, the U.N. stood by and allowed two atrocities to occur: the ongoing sanctions in Iraq (which continue to slaughter innocents, with no appreciable effect on the Iraqi government) and the Indonesian military’s destruction of East Timor. There was barely a whisper about either of these in the U.S. press. There were no clearer or more closely watched (in the Eastern and European press) examples of the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy and the ineptitude of the U.N., but the U.S. media was oblivious.

And finally, over two months ago another Global Climate Conference came and went without a single mention in the U.S. press. The BBC covered it, the Financial Times of London wrote it up, Agence France Presse was there, and even the Irish Times had something to say about it. But here in the U.S. not a word was printed. Perhaps they didn’t want to print information embarrassing to U.S. business, Congress, and the Clinton/Gore Administration–i.e., the shameful performance of U.S. delegates, who did everything they could to undermine any implementation of the Kyoto accords. Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress still hasn’t ratified the treaty on global warming. And why would they? The press seems to have forgotten all about it.

And finally, a couple of smaller, but more heartening, stories went largely unnoticed. The emergence of an anti-genetic engineering movement in North America has failed to make the news, in spite of several successful actions this year. Secondly, with the help of radical environmentalists, Watch Mountain and Fossil Creek were both removed from the Plum Creek I-90 land exchange. Saving these two forests from logging is a major local environmental victory. Congratulations to the local residents of Randle, WA, and to the tree-sitters and activists from the Cascadia Defense Network who worked together to save these areas from the axe.

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