OLYMPIA -- Amid
the debate over economy-stifling job-killing government austerity, one myth
continues to ring loudly among the American public: that despite all the
budget cuts, government is still growing. It's not just right-wing politicians
and think tanks that are perpetuating this myth, it's also the business
lobbying groups. Yes, the same folks who bemoan the state's freight mobility
problems and its lack of skilled and educated workers -- among other things --
also regularly deliver the conservative clarion call against "big
"As government grows
ever larger in an attempt to provide more benefits to more people, it saps
trillions of dollars from the private economy and ultimately deters job
Association of Washington Business President Don Brunell in his latest
It is exactly this type of
rhetoric -- sustained for nearly a generation now -- that fuels
anti-government public sentiment. It elevates the likes of Tim Eyman, a
comical tax crank who once would have been marginalized as a clearly
self-interested flimflam man, into a voice of the oppressed taxpayer. It turns
some Democrats into fiscal neoconservatives who congratulate themselves on
all-cuts budgets that starve public services at a pace just gradual enough not
to be detected in the short term. And it makes it very hard -- near
impossible, in fact -- to have a reasonable debate about the need for more
revenue for roads and bridges, essential public services, and public schools
so underfunded that the state faces a court order to do better.
oh yeah, it's not true.
Your government, at both the
state and federal levels, is shrinking at an unprecedented rate. More
economists now agree that government cuts are doing the exact opposite of what
Mr. Brunell contends; all-cuts austerity budgets are slowing economic growth
and harming the private sector.
In February, for the 31st
consecutive month, the number of federal government jobs was
less than it had been a year earlier. That surpasses the previous record
of 30 straight months that occurred following World War II. This week, thanks
to Congressional sequester cuts, tens of thousands of federal employees across
the nation will start experiencing what Washington's state employees have
experienced, unpaid furloughs that cut their wages and hamper public services.
Set aside that image of
paper-pushing bureaucrats in the other Washington. Instead, picture the tens
of thousands of civilian defense workers right here at Joint Base Lewis-McChord
and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, thousands of workers at Hanford nuclear
reservation and many, many more who provide critical services like directing
air traffic, safeguarding our environment and providing homeland security.
These are middle-class working families in Washington state who will suffer as
a result, as will the businesses in their communities.
Meanwhile, the headcount of
Washington state employees has dropped for five consecutive years from 66,883
to 58,635, according to state
workforce data (see chart above), even as the state population they
service has grown by another 1 million people.
It is that growing
population that creates the illusion of government growth. Even without
additional revenue, our biennial budget will grow by more than $1 billion
because there are more taxpayers paying for more students, more prisoners,
more sick and disabled people, etc. But not higher
you. In fact, you are paying less money to the state government as a
percentage of your personal income than at any other time since the Washington
State Economic and Revenue Forecast Council started recording it (see chart).
So, the next time you hear a
business lobbyist complain that taxes are too high and that government is too
big, remember their motives. They are not paid to make Washington a better
place to live and work, nor are they paid to make sure public services are
effective and properly funded. They are paid by corporations to keep their
taxes low and to protect special-interest tax loopholes. That's why, above all
their legitimate concerns about underfunded transportation and higher
education systems, they will continue to bang the Tea Party's drum against
"big government" and ignore all evidence to the contrary.
To close, or
not to close, tax loopholes
It is in this
context that the Legislature attempts to reconcile three competing budget
proposals before the 2013 session ends on Sunday, April 28. Proposals from
Gov. Jay Inslee and the House of Representatives attempt to reverse the course
of budget austerity by taking modest steps to raise some revenue, largely by
closing a few tax loopholes.
The Senate budget
avoids closing any tax loopholes -- and actually creates 15 new ones -- by
making more budget cuts and assuming phantom savings and efficiencies. Reports
indicate that at least $300 million in the Senate budget comes from "a
series of guesses about how much money can be saved and how much in extra
taxes can be collected without specific directives or changes in the
"It is time to
apply common sense to closing tax loopholes that donít strengthen our
educational system, our communities, or our economic vitality,"
Washington State Labor Council President Jeff Johnson said. "The
Governor's budget and the House budget represent a good first step towards
moving our state in the direction of shared prosperity."
paves way for transportation
Until Friday, the
state transportation budget was experiencing something of a hostage crisis.
State Senators opposed to plans for the new Columbia River Crossing for I-5
connecting Vancouver and Portland -- largely because of the inclusion of light
rail in the project -- were blocking progress on passing a transportation
budget for the entire state.
The logjam led the News
Tribune to editorialize:
"Lawmakers in Olympia shouldnít let the Puget Sound Gateway Project
(connecting SR 167, I-5 and SR 509) become hostage to lunacy in Vancouver. If
people in Clark County are willing to kiss off a new bridge and that much
federal and Oregon money, so be it. In this part of the state, we know a good
thing when we see one -- and we arenít quarreling over our need for the
But last Friday,
the Senate Transportation Committee succeeded in passing a budget after a deal
was reached on the CRC. At the request of Sen. Don Benton (R-Vancouver), the
CRC project will
be audited by the state's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee to
"investigate fraud, malfeasance, and misuse of public funds." Plus,
$81 million towards CRC planning will be frozen until the Coast Guard approves
its design, addressing concerns about the bridge's planned height.
budget plan and the one already approved in the House are separate from the
broad transportation proposal to increase gas taxes and some vehicle fees to
cover the costs of several of the stateís transportation projects, including
the $450 million needed to pay Washington's share of the $3.4 billion CRC
project. Oregon lawmakers have already committed to paying their share, as has
the federal government.
fighting to cut workers'
There are still
serious concerns that, as part of last-minute deal-making, legislators will
consider resurrecting dead legislation to cut workers' compensation benefits
and give employers more control over injured workers. The labor committee in
the Republican-controlled Senate just scheduled a hearing for today (Wednesday) to
talk (again) about expanding the controversial lump-sum settlements for
than 18 months ago, the Legislature approved dramatic changes to our workers'
comp system that haven't even been fully implemented yet. Since then, some
$300 million in savings -- almost entirely from changes other than the
lump-sum buyouts -- have allowed the state to keep rates frozen for both 2012
and 2013, plus shift $82 million into reserves this year. Rather than making
last-minute deals to expand the lump-sum buyouts, the responsible course is to
allow the 2011 changes to be fully implemented, measure the impact on system
costs and outcomes for injured workers, and then reassess the need for further
changes. (Also see: "Four
Reasons Why Our Current Workers' Compensation System WORKS.")
Please call the
Legislative Hotline at 1-800-562-6000 and leave a message for your State
Representatives, your State Senator and Gov. Jay Inslee: "No more cuts in
the workers' comp system!"