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State’s editorial boards continue to call on lawmakers to make “difficult choices” – without saying what those choices should be

Yesterday, while doing some weekend reading with the help of Pacific NW Portal, I came across an editorial by the Spokesman-Review which reminded me of at least a dozen different platitude-laden Seattle Times editorials I’ve read over the years that attempted to pass for insightful commentary on the state’s fiscal situation.

This editorial, “State’s fiscal choices far from easy“, begins with a lame joke, goes on to point out that Washington has many important public services and obligations that lawmakers (on behalf of the people they serve) need to figure out how to fund in the next biennium, and then concludes with the following pearl of wisdom:

The new Legislature will have some very difficult choices to make. As the political campaigns begin in earnest, voters should ask tough questions about how they expect Washington to meet all its obligations. Until this biennium, the answer was tuition increases at state universities. That’s the wrong answer for the state’s middle class, and the aerospace, and information- and biotechnology industries that are the key to the state’s future.

In my twelve plus years as an activist, I feel as though I’ve read this same editorial (in different incarnations!) a hundred times or more. It’s getting old. Really old.

What we need is not more tough questions – those are readily supplied at forums and candidate debates by the wisest and sharpest among us every election cycle. What we really need are tough answers.

We need candidates for Legislature to be frank and even blunt when talking about the budget and the fiscal outlook for our state. We especially need them to be candid and to reframe when talking to the state’s editorial writers, many of whom seem to be afflicted with a chronic case of Eymanism.

Eymanism, which gets its name from initiative promoter Tim Eyman (who has been selling the tempting notion of a free lunch to Washingtonians for years) is the false, totally erroneous idea that our obligations can be met and our underfunded public services protected and expanded without ever raising or recovering revenue.

Though Eyman belongs to the Grover Norquist school of thought, which holds that public services should be destroyed and government undermined wherever and whenever possible, he knows that Washingtonians like their public services, so he ignores that side of the equation as much as possible. And unfortunately, established media outlets let him get away with it way too frequently.

Retiring Senator Adam Kline, who has long been one of my favorite elected leaders, is one of the few who has had the gumption to consistently interrupt Eyman’s press conferences and demand that Eyman show him where the so-called fat is in the budget. Kline, in fighting form, would demand to know what cuts Eyman would make, and Eyman would demur, offering pathetic excuses and trying to return to his prefabricated talking points as fast as possible.

Kline would persist, badgering Eyman to the point where Eyman (who has a short fuse) would become very irritated. It was always great fun to watch.

The people who pen these unsigned masterpieces for the editorial pages of The Seattle Times, Spokesman-Review, and other papers deserve to be badgered by a reader with the courage and dedication of somebody like Adam Kline every time they generate one of these silly editorials that ignores the elephants in the room.

What are the elephants in the room? One of them, amusingly enough, actually uses an elephant as its mascot: the Republican Party. The other is Washington’s utterly broken, highly regressive, opaque tax structure.

Each stands in the way of what Washington’s editorial boards profess is necessary and desirable: strong public services and a budget that is fiscally responsible.

I mention the Republican Party first because it’s the elephant that’s standing in front, blocking access to the other elephant.

The Republican Party these days answers to right wing extremists. They’re in control; they dominate. They run the show (and to them, it is a show, sadly).

There used to be such as thing as progressive Republicans, but the Dan Evans wing of the party no longer has any power. Nowadays, there are unfortunately just two kinds of Republicans: Right wing extremists and enablers of right wing extremists.

Even many biconceptuals (people who use both the progressive and conservative value systems in different areas of their political thinking) recognize this.

In fact, it has become increasingly obvious to anyone who has bothered to pay attention to the 113th Congress and the last two legislative sessions here in Washington State, which featured a Senate controlled by the Republicans following a post-election power coup engineered with Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon.

For the likes of Tim Eyman and his collaborators Don Benton and Pam Roach, the evolution (or devolution) of the Republican Party is a cause for celebration.

For pretty much everybody else, it is a lamentable, sad state of affairs, because what it means is that we no longer have a healthy two-party system.

Simply put, progress has become elusive without one-party rule.

Progressives can no longer collaborate across party lines for the good of all since there is no room for progressives in the Republican Party… or even anyone with progressive views on major issues (as naive Democratic defector Mark Miloscia will discover if he manages to win in the 30th LD).

This painful truth seems totally lost on The Seattle Times and other editorial boards, who seem stuck in another era. Just this weekend, the Times endorsed two Republicans for House in the 5th District, Chad Madgendanz and Jay Rodne.

Of Rodne, the Times wrote:

Rodne’s views on social issues — in particular, leading opposition to gay marriage in the House and vigorously criticizing Inslee’s decision to halt capital punishment — are discordant with The Seattle Times editorial board’s positions.

His opponent, Democrat Essie Hicks, a former small business owner and an education advocate, is better on those issues.

But her definition of the McCleary obligation — up to $7 billion more — and support for general “tax reform” suggests she’d be too free-spending for the 5th Legislative District.

That last paragraph, which I’ve boldfaced, speaks to everything that is wrong, or messed up, with newspaper endorsements today.

The Times claims to want great public schools. They regularly lament the underfunding of primary schools, secondary schools, and universities. But then they turn around and endorse anti-tax Republicans like Jay Rodne at election time. This Jekyll/Hyde like behavior is hardly new, of course, but it never ceases to be silly.

What do Frank Blethen and his editorial writers really want? The broken status quo, which people like Jay Rodne represent? Or courageous new leaders like Essie Hicks, who was clearly not afraid to walk into her interview with the Seattle Times and declare that we’re behind – really behind – on school funding?

What’s especially stupid is that the Times then tries to pass off its own case of Eymanism onto the voters by claiming that Hicks would be “too free-spending for the 5th Legislative District.” The implication seems to be that Hicks would not be fiscally responsible because she, unlike Rodne, wants to do something about the other elephant in the room, the one Rodne’s elephant is standing in front of.

Shame on the Times.

Real fiscal responsibility requires courage and foresight – the ability to think long term, to understand non-financial costs, and to appreciate systemic causation.

We have been procrastinating for years as a state and collectively pretending that we could have it both ways, but that’s just not going to work for us much longer. We’ve been backfilling for over a decade, and we’re about at the end of that rope. Lawmakers are running out of tricks and short-term gimmicks that they can use to pretend to balance the budget every two years.

Because Republicans are unwilling to raise revenue (even to ensure we’re honoring the explicit obligations contained in the plan of government our Founders gave us) and because they’re totally uninterested in fixing our broken tax structure, we’re stuck legislatively so long as they have veto power of some kind over the process, whether that’s control of one house of the Legislature, or the existence of an unconstitutional scheme like I-601 and its clones, brought to us by Tim Eyman, oil companies, Wall Street banks, and other powerful interests.

(Thankfully, the unconstitutional supermajority requirement from I-601 and its clones is gone; the state Supreme Court finally nixed it last year).

Now, admittedly, within the Legislature’s Democratic caucuses, on the subject of tax reform, there isn’t yet consensus on what to do or how to do it.

But at least Democrats, even the more conservative ones, are willing to have a conservation that goes beyond platitudes and lip service.

Aside from progressive publications like this one, that conversation sadly doesn’t seem to extend much further beyond Democratic and progressive circles. It needs to. Washingtonians need to understand the connection between the tax dollars they pay and the important, vital services they get in return.

If we want better public schools, better universities, better public transit, better police and fire protection, better libraries, better parks, then we must pool our resources and invest in those things together.

Taxes are like membership dues in society. Contrary to what Tim Eyman says, taxes are not bad. They’re not evil. They’re not an affliction. Rather, taxes are the means by which we get all of the good things that make our state and our region the great place to live, work, and play that it is. Of course, taxes should be fairly levied and consistently collected, and that’s not the case in our state now.

The system is rigged, and there are a lot of corporations that are cheating their way out of their obligations, wrongly thinking, “It’s just good business.”

No, it’s not. Where would the likes of Microsoft and Amazon be without the Internet, which came into being thanks to public research? Or our courts system (nine-tenths of the cases pertain to corporate law) which they rely on to adjudicate disputes over patents, trademarks, and sales or other agreements? Where would Boeing be without our publicly-funded airports, seaports, and highway system?

All the successful businesses in this state owe some of their success to the people of this state, who paid for the public services they have used, and continue to use, to make their money. They need to pay it forward and embrace, not dodge, their obligations. Mindsets about taxes in this state need to be changed, from the marble halls of the Legislative Building to countless kitchen tables to the C-suites in Seattle and Redmond, from can’t to can. Real, meaningful tax reform is not only achievable, it’s absolutely necessary if this state is to have a future.

And what does tax reform look like? Here’s a basic overview. We need to:

  • List all tax exemptions as expenditures in the state budget every two years so we can see what they’re costing us.
  • Sunset outdated, unnecessary tax exemptions that are not benefiting the public interest. If an independent review cannot provide ample justification, the tax exemption should be abolished and the revenue recovered.
  • Make the property tax geared more towards means/ability to pay, with a basic homestead exemption for Washington homeowners.
  • Completely replace the antiquated business and occupation tax, and partially replace the sales tax, with taxes on wealth.

If this state’s newspaper publishers want to use their influence to do some good before their business models become unsustainable, they should quit peddling platitudes on their editorial pages, and help breathe new life into our political discourse. Start by acknowledging that Eyman’s initiatives are not the answer.

It can be done: Peter Jackson is leading the way with his stewardship of The Herald of Everett, which seems to have largely cured itself of Eymanism.

The editors of the Seattle Times, Spokesman-Review, and others could certainly learn a thing or two from Jackson. And we wish they would.

One Comment

  1. Craig Conant
    Posted August 31st, 2014 at 10:58 AM | Permalink

    Will someone please hire Tim Eyman? He obviously has a lot of free time and, as they used to say before Eyman made being a slacker lucrative, idle hands are the devil’s playthings. And ever since Tim successfully hoodwinked the voters of Washington State into voting for his license tab tax initiative, there’s been the devil to pay. If you’re interested in the cause of sky-high tuition or decreased funding for schools generally, look no further than Tim and his revenue-phobic friends. There’s not a tax that they don’t hate. So please, someone, hire Tim so he can have a job that keeps him busy and puts food on his meager board while at the same time keeping him and us out of trouble. Or convince him to actually run for public office instead of making the lives of honest politicians miserable. Or even better, let’s all start an initiative which when passed would require Tim to move to Idaho. I’m sure Tim would be happier there. Not sure about Idaho…