Supplies at a public health vaccine clinic
A Public Health nurse prepares supplies during a free hepatitis A vaccine clinic. (Photo: Seattle-King County Public Health)

This morn­ing, The Seat­tle Times ran a very impor­tant, above the fold sto­ry by state­house cor­re­spon­dent Joseph O’Sul­li­van that looks at the chron­ic under­fund­ing of pub­lic health sys­tems in Wash­ing­ton State.

As O’Sul­li­van reports, the sab­o­tage of our state and coun­ty health depart­ments is a tragedy that goes back decades and can be traced back to the adop­tion of two of Tim Eyman’s ear­li­est ini­tia­tives — both of which were ruled uncon­sti­tu­tion­al, but which were sub­se­quent­ly rein­stat­ed by the Leg­is­la­ture anyway.

From the sto­ry:

The prob­lem began, state and local health offi­cials say, with a pair of vot­er-approved ini­tia­tives about twen­ty years ago.

Ini­tia­tive 695 removed the state motor vehi­cle excise tax, a ded­i­cat­ed source of mon­ey to pub­lic health pro­grams. Short­ly after that, vot­ers approved Ini­tia­tive 747, which lim­it­ed prop­er­ty tax increas­es that helped fund local health districts.

It’s impor­tant to note that while the does­n’t men­tion Tim Eyman — which is good in that it allows the nar­ra­tive to stay focused on what hap­pened to our pub­lic health depart­ments — Eyman was the spon­sor of both I‑695 and I‑747, and the dis­in­for­ma­tion he ped­dled was a major fac­tor in their pas­sage at the bal­lot box.

Back to O’Suli­van’s sto­ry:

Mon­ey prob­lems fes­tered as the Great Reces­sion fur­ther ham­mered tax col­lec­tions, offi­cials say, and as fed­er­al fund­ing became more restrict­ed. Those issues cre­at­ed a cycle where every bud­get brought cuts or dif­fi­cult spend­ing choices.

“Almost in every bud­get cycle before I came on board, there had been pret­ty major cuts,” said Pat­ty Hayes, who in 2014 became the direc­tor of Pub­lic Health – Seat­tle & King County.

“And when I came on board six-and-a-half years ago we had a $12 mil­lion hole” in the budget.

She described a series of hard choic­es as fund­ing dried up. Vac­cine clin­ics stopped, home vis­its were trimmed back and plan­ning for emer­gen­cies like a pan­dem­ic fell by the wayside.

Hayes described the loss of a pro­gram for iden­ti­fy­ing latent tuber­cu­lo­sis as a great exam­ple of how pub­lic health pro­grams can save sig­nif­i­cant dollars.

If latent tuber­cu­lo­sis is iden­ti­fied, it can be treat­ed for about $600, said Hayes — com­pared to $15,000 or more if the per­son devel­ops the dis­ease and lat­er goes to the hospital.

For over nine­teen years, our team at the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute has fought Eyman’s destruc­tive ini­tia­tives and worked to remind all Wash­ing­to­ni­ans that there are two sides to every equa­tion. The truth about tax­es is a truth that needs to be con­stant­ly told: Tax­es pow­er invest­ments in the things that make our com­mu­ni­ties strong, from hos­pi­tals and schools to parks and pools.

Busi­ness­es of all sizes rely on pub­lic ser­vices to oper­ate. The suc­cess of the pri­vate depends on the pub­lic. Con­se­quent­ly, when we defund pub­lic ser­vices by cut­ting or lim­it­ing tax­es, we’re set­ting our­selves up for pain and mis­ery and fail­ure as a soci­ety. We’re still pay­ing the price today for the imple­men­ta­tion of Tim Eyman’s ear­li­est destruc­tive ini­tia­tives, which have nev­er been repealed or replaced with more pro­gres­sive rev­enue sources by state legislators.

In the imme­di­ate after­math of the imple­men­ta­tion of I‑695, leg­is­la­tors did a lot of back­fill­ing to off­set cuts that would have oth­er­wise been made to pub­lic ser­vices. Per­haps it might have been bet­ter if they had­n’t, because that back­fill­ing exer­cise cre­at­ed a pre­text for Eyman and right wing think tanks like the Wash­ing­ton Pol­i­cy Cen­ter to begin ped­dling a false nar­ra­tive about Eyman’s initiatives.

In a pam­phlet pub­lished in Jan­u­ary 2001, WPC’s Paul Gup­py and Brett Wil­son referred to I‑695 as “a suc­cess­ful tax cut­ting pol­i­cy”, writing:

Events have amply demon­strat­ed that the state and local gov­ern­ments have adjust­ed well to the rev­enue reduc­tion required by repeal of the MVET. Gov­ern­ment agen­cies have adapt­ed through a com­bi­na­tion of increased effi­cien­cy, reordered bud­get pri­or­i­ties, pro­gram sav­ings and alter­na­tive rev­enue sources.

Vital gov­ern­ment ser­vices have not been dis­rupt­ed. On the whole these pro­grams have con­tin­ued as before, and in many cas­es have been improved and expand­ed, since Ini­tia­tive 695 passed. Nor has the mea­sure seri­ous­ly crimped pub­lic rev­enues, since over­all spend­ing by the state, coun­ties and cities con­tin­ues to rise.

It has now been twen­ty years since the above non­sense was writ­ten and I‑695 was imple­ment­ed. We have the advan­tage of addi­tion­al two decades of hind­sight with which we can “cool­ly assess” the impact that gut­ting the statewide motor vehi­cle excise tax has had. We can see it’s been very, very destruc­tive.

It was not just pub­lic health that took a hit, by the way. So did fer­ries and local roads and mass tran­sit and a host of oth­er essen­tial pub­lic services.

Con­trary to what Gup­py and Wil­son claimed in their “pol­i­cy brief”, state and local gov­ern­ments did not sim­ply make do with less rev­enue. Rather, they scaled back and cut back, as O’Sul­li­van’s sto­ry doc­u­ments. Back­fill­ing may have cush­ioned the imme­di­ate blow, but there was still a blow… a big blow. So big that even decades lat­er, we’re still talk­ing about the dam­age that I‑695 (and I‑747) inflicted.

We no longer have to argue or won­der about what would or might hap­pen with imple­men­ta­tion of I‑695. We now know because we’ve expe­ri­enced it.

We have the receipts. The I‑695 oppo­si­tion cam­paign was pre­scient in its warn­ings, while Tim Eyman and the Wash­ing­ton Pol­i­cy Cen­ter were wrong.

It’s trag­ic that it has tak­en a pan­dem­ic to focus need­ed atten­tion on the under­fund­ing of pub­lic health in Wash­ing­ton State. There is a long list of oth­er essen­tial ser­vices like pub­lic health that are sad­ly in a sim­i­lar boat.

I wrote about one of them yes­ter­day — geo­log­ic haz­ards research.

Seat­tle, King Coun­ty, and oth­er pop­u­lous juris­dic­tions in the state’s urban core have man­aged to par­tial­ly lib­er­ate them­selves from the jaws of I‑695 and I‑747 by approv­ing a mas­sive num­ber of local levies designed to fund every­thing from libraries, parks, and hos­pi­tals to mass tran­sit and preschool.

Rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, on the oth­er hand, have not. They’re still chok­ing even today. O’Sul­li­van’s sto­ry right­ly devotes some ink to their plight:

Since 2011, Asotin Coun­ty Health Admin­is­tra­tor Brady Wood­bury has watched his staff of more than a dozen dwin­dle to six. The same staffers mak­ing calls for COVID-19 con­tact trac­ing must also still han­dle inspec­tions and respons­es for sep­tic systems.

“Con­tact trac­ing stayed the pri­or­i­ty, but once you got enough, you break off and go get an inspec­tion done,” said Wood­bury. If a sep­tic sys­tem sud­den­ly failed, he added, “we had to stop con­tact tracing.”

Okanogan Coun­ty Pub­lic Health over the years lost out­reach staff who con­nect with agri­cul­tur­al employ­ees — which include Mex­i­can guest work­ers — who work with apples, cher­ries and pears, said Health Offi­cer James Wallace.

“And we suf­fered because of it, we want­ed to test more peo­ple, test our farm­work­ers, pro­vide more com­mu­ni­ca­tion and edu­ca­tion as soon as this pan­dem­ic hit,” said Wallace.

“And because we didn’t have the fund­ing and didn’t have the peo­ple we were behind the ball on that.”

Empha­sis is mine. With any pub­lic ser­vice, capac­i­ty and effec­tive­ness (the abil­i­ty to pro­vide what the peo­ple need) will always be con­tin­gent upon fund­ing. Always.

That’s because, con­trary to what Tim Eyman wants peo­ple to believe, you can’t get some­thing for noth­ing. The wide­spread waste, fraud, and abuse the right wing talks about sim­ply does­n’t exist. All they have are unrep­re­sen­ta­tive anec­dotes (some of which are urban leg­ends, not even real stories).

For­mer State Sen­a­tor Adam Kline used to show up at Tim Eyman’s press con­fer­ences with a copy of the bud­get and demand to know where the fat was. Eyman would con­sis­tent­ly refuse to answer, because he did­n’t have an answer.

Pub­lic agen­cies can’t pay their employ­ees with imag­i­nary mon­ey, or afford sup­plies and mate­ri­als that projects require mere­ly by becom­ing more efficient.

Slash­ing tax­es means slash­ing investments.That’s the oth­er side of the equa­tion the right wing does­n’t like talk­ing about: the return. What comes back to us.

Tax­es trans­form dol­lars into pub­lic goods that none of us could afford on our own. And unlike many busi­ness ven­tures in the pri­vate sec­tor, tax­es are a very safe form of invest­ment. In fact, they’re pret­ty much the safest form of invest­ment there is. We know what invest­ing in pub­lic health can do for us, for instance.

When pub­lic health had a ded­i­cat­ed fund­ing source (the MVET) it did­n’t have to com­pete against oth­er pub­lic ser­vices for scarce dol­lars in years in which tax col­lec­tions were not as strong and there were few­er dol­lars to be appropriated.

Per­haps, in addi­tion to a rainy day fund, Wash­ing­ton State needs a spe­cial ser­vices fund specif­i­cal­ly for low pro­file but super impor­tant pub­lic ser­vices like health depart­ments or geo­log­ic haz­ards research or wild­fire prevention.

We sim­ply can­not go on as we have been for the last two decades.

At least one thing has changed in the inter­ven­ing years: Demo­c­ra­t­ic state leg­is­la­tors appear to have learned that rein­stat­ing Tim Eyman ini­tia­tives is bad. So while I‑976 (Eyman’s most attempt to defund pub­lic ser­vices he does­n’t like, which was over­turned by the Supreme Court last year) will stay dead, the mis­takes of the ear­ly 2000s still need cor­rect­ing. The rev­enue that Eyman’s ear­ly ini­tia­tives have choked off needs to be restored to secure Wash­ing­ton’s future.

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.

Adjacent posts