A recent newspaper article prompted me to sit down and express my feelings about how difficult it must have been for Gov. Chris Gregoire to explain to students at the Clark County Skills Center why the state is facing more deep cuts to education.
The students must have sensed how agonizing it was for her to bring this bad news to them. After all, she has excelled in previous budgets in making K-12 and higher education a top priority. She fully understands the importance of giving our children an appropriate opportunity to compete in this global economy.
She told the students that over 50 percent of the budget goes to education and that much of the other 50 percent is off limits; federally mandated Medicaid, pensions, debt service, prisons, senior service programs and support to counties and cities for numerous programs including police and fire departments. Without new revenue her hands are tied.
The funding areas in education that are not protected by the State Constitution, Article 1X, and the Judge Doran decision (1977) are subject to cuts. These include levy equalization, school bussing, early childhood education and some others. (I personally would argue that all of these are basic for equality and fairness for every child).
We are all concerned about the appropriateness of state funding for certain government function. So, what should we concerned Washington citizens do?
I want to preface my next comments by a disclaimer. I am a strong believer in Washington State’s Initiative and Referendum provisions in Article II of the State Constitution. However, in the recent past, by initiative, the people have chosen to require the Legislature to fund class size reduction in K-12 and increase teacher’s salaries - all worthy causes - all cost money. Recently the people passed three initiatives which reduced revenues or made it more difficult to raise revenue. First, the citizens repealed the bottled water tax that the Legislature had passed in 2010. Second, required the Legislature to fund extra training of caregivers at a cost to the general fund of $70 million. Third, required the Legislature to have a two-thirds vote in each House to raise taxes (although I personally would argue that you can’t amend the constitution by initiative).
Now for a little legislative history of a set of circumstances similar to our current dilemma.
In the late 70’s, after the House and Senate Democratic majorities pushed for tax increases, the Democrats lost the majority in the House and later in the Senate when Democratic senator Von Reichbauer changed parties giving the Republicans the majority there. The voters in Washington elected Republican John Spellman for governor over Sen. Jim McDermott. The Democrat’s attempt to raise taxes changed the entire state’s leadership.
By the time the Republicans started writing the 1981-83 biennial budget, the state’s revenues had dropped somewhere between $1-2 billion dollars. The no-tax increase Republican majority party was faced with severely cutting programs and/or raising new taxes.
Gov. Spellman showed leadership. He proposed some cuts in several programs, increased college tuition by 50 percent, placed a surcharge on most all taxes by 10 percent, and finally, proposed to put the sales tax back on food which the peoples’ initiative had removed a couple of years earlier.
For the most part, in the House, the effort to add new taxes was bipartisan. In the Senate, 22 of the 25 majority Republicans put their political lives on the line. Three Democrats joined in for final passage. With the leadership of the Governor and bipartisan action of the Legislature, much public service was spared, particularly education at all levels.
In the 1982 elections though, Republicans paid the price for their tax vote. The people elected a Democratic majority in both Houses and Gov. Spellman lost to Democrat Booth Gardner in 1984. Shortly after, the economy was improved enough and the new revenue allowed a bipartisan legislature to remove most of the new taxes, including the food tax. I am sure the people applauded the bipartisan effort of the Legislature to put the health and education of our citizens above their interest in getting re-elected and further applauded the same effort to remove those taxes a few years later when new revenue came in.
Today we are faced with somewhat the same dilemma, however more serious. Without new revenue; we will leave our most vulnerable people destitute, handicap our K-12 children in their ability to become productive citizens and our college students will be unable to prepare themselves to compete in this economy with their global counterparts.
So, earlier I asked what we concerned citizens can do.
I would like to join all the citizens in Washington and the 147 Legislators that were elected by the voters to stand behind the Governor’s plan or something similar.
I realize that after my 30 years in the House and the Senate that taxes aren’t popular with many people. However, the devastation that will occur to our children and their futures should not be popular with anyone.
Al Bauer served in the House from 1971 to 1980, and in the Senate from 1981 to 2001.