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.