Washington legislators, remember your paramount duty
Washington legislators, remember your paramount duty (NPI illustration)

Yes­ter­day, just in time for the 2017 leg­isla­tive ses­sion, poll­ster Stu­art Elway released new results from a recent sur­vey in which his firm asked Wash­ing­ton vot­ers about how and whether we should invest in Wash­ing­ton’s K‑12 schools, which have been bad­ly under­fund­ed for years in defi­ance of the Wash­ing­ton State Constitution.

The Supreme Court has repeat­ed­ly ordered the Leg­is­la­ture to dis­charge its para­mount duty and amply pro­vide for the edu­ca­tion of all young peo­ple resid­ing with­in the state. The Leg­is­la­ture has increased edu­ca­tion fund­ing, but not by enough to com­ply with the require­ments of the Constitution.

Edu­ca­tion fund­ing is thus the most impor­tant issue fac­ing the new Leg­is­la­ture, again. Vot­ers told Elway they also see it as the top issue.

Over­all, 45% of respon­dents ranked edu­ca­tion first, fol­lowed by “the econ­o­my”, “tax­es”, and trans­porta­tion. Respon­dents iden­ti­fy­ing as Democ­rats and respon­dents iden­ti­fy­ing as inde­pen­dents both pin­point­ed edu­ca­tion as their top issue; for the Repub­li­can respon­dents, it was “tax­es”.

Elway then asked about the fol­low­ing “strate­gies” for fund­ing education:

  1. Fund pub­lic edu­ca­tion first with the mon­ey avail­able, then fund the rest of state gov­ern­ment with the mon­ey remain­ing — even if that means cut­ting oth­er pro­grams and services.
  2. Increase tax­es on busi­ness­es to fund pub­lic edu­ca­tion with­out mak­ing deep cuts to oth­er state pro­grams and ser­vices. This option was mod­i­fied this year to spec­i­fy “tax­es on busi­ness­es,” since that is most of the Governor’s pro­pos­al. The change made no sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in the response.
  3. Do as much as pos­si­ble to fund edu­ca­tion with­out rais­ing tax­es and with­out deep cuts to oth­er pro­grams — even if that means we do not ful­ly fund education.

I put the word strate­gies in quotes above because in our view, #1 and #3 aren’t actu­al­ly strate­gies at all, and should not be char­ac­ter­ized as such.

#1 is just not pos­si­ble and sug­gests a com­plete igno­rance of how state bud­get­ing works. “Fund edu­ca­tion first” is a worth­less catch­phrase — it’s sim­ply not a strat­e­gy. We have many major oblig­a­tions as a state, more than one of which are con­sti­tu­tion­al­ly man­dat­ed. We’ve made addi­tion­al oblig­a­tions in order to accept fed­er­al tax dol­lars. We can’t neglect those. Rob­bing Peter to pay Paul won’t work.

#3, mean­while, is not con­sti­tu­tion­al and won’t lead to a res­o­lu­tion of the McCleary court case. #3 is what the Leg­is­la­ture has already been doing for years, which is why our pub­lic schools remain unac­cept­ably underfunded.

And as for #2, the phras­ing Elway chose to use is vague and does­n’t ade­quate­ly explain what Gov­er­nor Inslee is propos­ing. The gov­er­nor’s bud­get plan includes a cap­i­tal gains tax on the wealthy, a pol­lu­tion tax, and an increase in the busi­ness & occu­pa­tion tax that small busi­ness­es would be exempt­ed from.

The words “increase tax­es on busi­ness­es” lack speci­fici­ty and leave much to the imag­i­na­tion, so it’s not sur­pris­ing that 47% respond­ed favor­ably while 46% respond­ed unfa­vor­ably to this question.

Many Wash­ing­to­ni­ans are busi­ness own­ers; only a frac­tion of them are wealthy busi­ness own­ers. It must be not­ed that it is the wealthy that Gov­er­nor Inslee is propos­ing pay more in dues to ensure that our schools are ful­ly funded.

We believe the way to resolve McCleary is through pro­gres­sive rev­enue reform. Wash­ing­ton has the most upside down tax code in the nation — a tax code that oblig­es low and mid­dle income fam­i­lies to pay a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of their income in tax­es to sup­port our pub­lic ser­vices, while the wealthy are asked to pay very lit­tle. To make mat­ters worse, we don’t fair­ly tax busi­ness­es, either.

Per­haps our favorite adage here at NPI is the answers you get depend on the ques­tions you ask. I usu­al­ly include it along with every polling-relat­ed post I author because it is so impor­tant. It either did­n’t occur to Stu­art Elway and his firm to ask specif­i­cal­ly about pro­gres­sive rev­enue reform, or it did and he chose not to.We wish he would have, though, because we’d have been inter­est­ed in the answers.

Last June, we asked about pro­gres­sive rev­enue reform in our statewide poll, and we found very strong sup­port for a cap­i­tal gains tax on the wealthy, repeal of tax breaks that have failed to cre­ate new jobs, and mak­ing prop­er­ty tax­es fairer.

63% of the like­ly vot­ers who respond­ed to our sur­vey agreed that Washington’s schools need more fund­ing. Impres­sive­ly, 65% sup­port a cap­i­tal gains tax on the wealthy to make this hap­pen, with 46% say­ing they “strong­ly sup­port the idea”.

Our sur­vey of 679 like­ly Wash­ing­ton State vot­ers was in the field from June 14th-15th, 2016; all respon­dents par­tic­i­pat­ed via land­line. The poll had a mar­gin of error of +/- 3.8% at the 95% con­fi­dence level.

We asked:

Do you strong­ly sup­port, some­what sup­port, some­what oppose or strong­ly oppose tax­ing the cap­i­tal gains of wealthy indi­vid­u­als to help pay for pub­lic schools, col­leges and universities?”

These were the answers:

  • Sup­port: 65%
    • 46% “strong­ly sup­port” a cap­i­tal gains tax
    • 19% “some­what sup­port” a cap­i­tal gains tax
  • Oppose: 33%
    • 9% “some­what oppose” a cap­i­tal gains tax
    • 24% “strong­ly oppose” a cap­i­tal gains tax
  • 2% answered “not sure” 

We then asked about recov­er­ing rev­enue for the state by requir­ing cor­po­ra­tions to pay back tax breaks if they did not deliv­er on promis­es to cre­ate jobs, or they moved jobs out of our state after hav­ing received sub­si­dies from fel­low taxpayers.

As we sus­pect­ed, this hap­pens to be a wild­ly pop­u­lar idea with broad sup­port from across the polit­i­cal spec­trum. Here’s our question:

Do you strong­ly sup­port, some­what sup­port, some­what oppose or strong­ly oppose leg­is­la­tion requir­ing cor­po­ra­tions to for­feit tax breaks and repay sub­si­dies they pre­vi­ous­ly received if they fail to deliv­er on their job cre­ation promis­es, or they move jobs out of Wash­ing­ton State?

These were the answers:

  • Sup­port: 79%
    • 59% “strong­ly sup­port” cor­po­rate tax accountability
    • 20% “some­what sup­port” cor­po­rate tax accountability
  • Oppose: 15%
    • 9% “some­what oppose” cor­po­rate tax accountability
    • 6% “strong­ly oppose” cor­po­rate tax accountability
  • 6% answered “not sure” 

And here’s our ques­tion on prop­er­ty tax reform:

Do you strong­ly sup­port, some­what sup­port, some­what oppose or strong­ly oppose leg­is­la­tion that would reduce prop­er­ty tax­es for mid­dle and low­er income house­holds, while slight­ly increas­ing them for wealthy fam­i­lies, with no loss of rev­enue to pub­lic services?

These were the answers:

  • Sup­port: 67%
    • 42% “strong­ly sup­port” prop­er­ty tax fairness
    • 25% “some­what sup­port” prop­er­ty tax fairness
  • Oppose: 31%
    • 14% “some­what oppose” prop­er­ty tax fairness
    • 17% “strong­ly oppose” prop­er­ty tax fairness
  • 2% answered “not sure”

We also believe, based on our research, that a major­i­ty of Wash­ing­to­ni­ans sup­port tax­ing pol­luters to fund vital pub­lic ser­vices like our schools.

Again and again, our research has found that the peo­ple of Wash­ing­ton are hun­gry for pro­gres­sive rev­enue reform. Even Repub­li­can vot­ers are enthu­si­as­tic about some of the ideas we’ve asked about. Too bad their par­ty’s chiefs aren’t.

There are many, many approach­es we could take to mak­ing our upside down tax code fair­er, while also bring­ing in more rev­enue to fund our schools at the same time. We wish Elway would have asked about some of these approach­es, instead of wast­ing time try­ing to ascer­tain if peo­ple would be com­fort­able per­pet­u­at­ing the sta­tus quo, which would be total­ly irresponsible.

We fur­ther wish the media would reg­u­lar­ly explore the top­ic of pro­gres­sive rev­enue reform instead of just focus­ing on the con­flict in the Leg­is­la­ture. It is news to no one who fol­lows Wash­ing­ton pol­i­tics that our bicam­er­al Leg­is­la­ture’s four major par­ty cau­cus­es don’t agree on how to address the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.

Stop writ­ing that sto­ry over and over, please, and go talk to ordi­nary Wash­ing­ton fam­i­lies about our school fund­ing cri­sis. Get their views. Let’s hear more from teach­ers, par­ents, stu­dents, and activists, and less from law­mak­ers and lob­by­ists whose job it is to be in the state­house dur­ing session.

We think it’s vital, when ask­ing peo­ple what solu­tions they sup­port, to be spe­cif­ic. Most Wash­ing­to­ni­ans aren’t rich and there­fore already pay a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of their income in tax­es, because our tax code is the nation’s most regressive.

Hard­work­ing mid­dle and low­er income Wash­ing­to­ni­ans right­ly feel it’s time for the wealthy in our state to step up and pay their fair share.

Gov­er­nor Inslee has showed real lead­er­ship with his bud­get pro­pos­al, and we imag­ine his ideas will get a seri­ous recep­tion in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic-led House.

But Sen­ate Repub­li­cans are going to try their darnedest to steer our pub­lic dis­course away from these wor­thy ideas and dis­tract us from the real task at hand.

We must be pre­pared to con­stant­ly reframe so we can stay focused on what mat­ters: ensur­ing our kids get the edu­ca­tion they deserve.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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One reply on “Why isn’t Stuart Elway asking about revenue fairness when he polls on funding education?”

  1. Good analy­sis. Hope­ful­ly Elway will lis­ten and do a bet­ter job with word­ing of the ques­tions for his next survey. 

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