Month: February 2001

Bumps and Bruises

The push for free bus service is on. I like the concept, yes, but not the notion that it could replace light rail (or monorail). In spite of its myriad problems, the region needs some kind of mass transit system that removes odoriferous gashogs from highways. The question is: how do we get it at a reasonable cost, on a quick timetable, without running rails down the middle of M.L. King Way, or tunneling under the whole damn city? We’ll work it out eventually, I hope.

In the meantime, by all means, let’s have free bus service, too. If we can afford it. The current proposal relies on diverting money from light rail to pay for free buses. That’s a no-go, because voters approved the light rail plan and still support it by a measurable margin. People seem to be saying: “it has problems, but it can be fixed.” I agree–if we can get the planners to acknowledge the problems, too.

As for free bus service, it shouldn’t come at the price of light rail, because our current bus service has its own set of problems that should be fixed first. Here’s a quick list:

To travel across town, you have to go downtown first. This is the single biggest barrier to attracting new riders. When a car trip from First Hill to Wallingford takes 15 minutes, who’s going to take a bus downtown (15 minutes), wait at a bus stop (between 5 and 30 minutes), and then get on a second bus out to Wallingford (20-30 minutes)? No sane person. Only those of us too poor to own a car will waste an hour or more just trying to get across town.

New drivers don’t get enough training. Often bus riders know the routes better than new drivers and end up training them on how to drive their route in a timely way. And somebody needs to impress on new drivers that the back door is indispensable during rush hour when people are packed like sardines in the aisle of the bus.

Speaking of which: in-city, rush-hour buses are too small to safely hold all the people who need to use them. An ex-boyfriend used to agonize over mysterious bruises on my arms and legs–until I reminded him that I ride Metro during rush hour.

Buses don’t run often enough, especially in the winter. This is a rainy, cold city, dammit. Add frostbite to my bruises and you’ll understand why I’m angry about waiting 40 minutes for a bus to arrive at my stop.

Seattle drivers don’t know they’re supposed to yield to buses pulling in and out of stops. Every day I ride the bus, some clown in a car honks at the bus. It’s time for a media campaign to educate these fools.

Metro needs to hunt down the person who decided to split up the #7 and the #43 routes and fire that person immediately.

Metro needs a real policy for dealing with abusive passengers, instead of simply telling drivers not to fight with anybody. If Metro wants to retain decent employees, they shouldn’t put them into dangerous situations without some kind of protection–or at least some effort to keep violent people off the buses.

Metro needs to hunt down the person responsible for buying those cheap Italian buses for the bus tunnel and fire that person immediately. Those buses are too heavy for city streets, which is why so many thoroughfares now need major repairs. And most of the broken-down buses that I’ve seen being towed around town are those cheap Italian jobs–while a lot of the buses that were old when the bus tunnel first opened continue to creak and groan along, happily doing their jobs.

And, finally, Metro must revise its inaccurate time schedules! Most bus schedules don’t take into account the increased flow of traffic in Seattle. Buses are getting later and later and drivers are getting more stressed out trying to keep to impossible schedules. The schedules need to accurately reflect travel times and not public relations promises of a quick ride to work.

Make some changes, Metro! Don’t expect us to give up a new light rail system just to fund free, but flawed, bus service.

Does the State Need a Savings Account?

In a nation where companies have the same rights as people under the law, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the state itself has the same needs and rights as individual people.

In the mid 1990s, backers of Initiative 601 argued that Washington State didn’t just need to balance its books every year, it needed to limit its spending with the ultimate goal of setting aside money for emergencies–to create a rainy-day fund, or in other words, a savings account. When it passed, I-601 imposed a cap on the state’s budget linked to inflation, which effectively froze the budget and assumed that no new services should be funded. It also incorrectly assumed that the cost of services wouldn’t rise faster than inflation. Health care costs, to take one example, vastly outpaced inflation throughout the 1990s.

While constrained by the I-601 cap, the state set aside a $1 billion pool of emergency funds, about 40% of which is discretionary (meaning a simple majority vote of the legislature can dip into it), while the rest is in an emergency fund (requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislature to access it). So far, political pressure from conservatives has kept the legislature from spending any of the I-601 funds, under the mistaken belief that the state is a person, a wayward spendthrift who needs to save for retirement or a catastrophic illness or an unforeseeable emergency.

But the state is not a person like you or me. It’s a bureaucracy that needs only to provide basic services for Washington residents. In an emergency it can access federal emergency funds or use its immense borrowing power to cover unexpected costs. But for the most part, the state only needs to balance its budget every year, and that budget has to be adequate, as measured by the needs of the state’s citizens.

Currently our state spends about 60% of its general fund on education. About 30% of the general fund goes for healthcare, human services, and “corrections,” a catch-all term for the state’s jails, prisons, police, and juvenile justice system. The remaining 10% covers transportation, the courts, salmon restoration, environmental funds, and governmental administration costs. So much for where the money goes. Where it comes from is another question altogether.

The state has no single, stable source of income. A mess of property taxes, sales taxes, licensing fees, grants from the federal government, tobacco settlement funds, and a mish-mash of miscellaneous fees make up the bulk of the state’s revenues. This situation has its pluses and minuses, from the state’s point of view. It’s easy for the state to mask its income from the taxpayer–until, of course, someone like Tim Eyman comes along and makes it his business to hack away at one or two of the state’s diverse revenue sources by wielding the tool of a citizen’s initiative.

From the wealthy resident’s viewpoint, Washington State is a paradise. There’s a reason why Californians like it here, and it has little to do with the weather, but everything to do with the lack of a state income tax–which would tax them on their high incomes, not on what they buy here in the state. (It’s so easy to travel to Portland or LA to buy your big ticket items, when you don’t have to work for a living). In the meantime, poor and middle-class residents are soaked with high sales and property taxes that impact them disproportionately. Is it any wonder why I-695, which axed the vehicle excise tax, passed so easily?

Meanwhile, basic services are collapsing. Over the past two decades, the federal government has devolved an ever greater amount of responsibilities onto state governments, including the administration of welfare and Medicaid, and the responsibility of serving low-income, working people who lack health insurance. Current federal Medicare reimbursement rates and state Medicaid rates are so low that the average medical practice in Washington State suffered a $95,000 loss last year, causing a record number of doctors to refuse services to Medicare and Medicaid recipients. For a basic checkup, the state’s Medicaid fund pays only half what a private insurer would pay. Even so, the state’s healthcare costs are expected to rise by over $800 million in the next two years.

The Department of Social and Health Services has been crumbling under years of budget cuts. For example, a recent internal audit of the state’s $200 million program for the developmentally disabled revealed that the program is in a shambles. There’s simply not enough money to hire and adequately train caseworkers; each caseworker in Washington State oversees 141 clients, while the national average is 40. Only 45 percent of the clients receive adequate services, while the rest live in shocking conditions. In addition, child welfare workers also manage impossible caseloads and lack adequate training. It’s easy for us to wax indignant over the death of Zy’Nyia Nobles or Linda David’s abuse, but we have to understand why this young child and this disabled woman were ignored by DSHS: it’s simply a lack of funds.

Education costs are also rising. Voters approved two expensive education initiatives that addressed the two problems legislators have been avoiding for too long: teacher pay raises and a reduction in class sizes. Indeed these two issues, in combination with adequate school buildings, are proven to have the most and best impact on the quality of K-12 education. It’s interesting to note that parents have to resort to citizens’ initiatives to get them, while Gov. Locke and school administrators continue to pour money into a bottomless pit of education frills: computers, high-tech gadgets, administration costs, training courses for school principals and administrators, and the like.

This year the legislature is in a bind. Gov. Jellyfish gave them a budget that funds education at the expense of healthcare and human services, which he wants to cut even more. But to avoid expensive lawsuits, the legislature is going to have to address inadequate funding for DSHS services. And transportation is a mess unto itself. The legislature has to dip into the state’s emergency funds. If it has any guts, it will eliminate this “savings account” altogether.

This, however, will only address the current budget crisis. Down the road, the legislature will need to take a hard look at the state’s revenue structure and consider the politically unthinkable: a state income tax.

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