I’ve waited nearly 20 years for Olympia to fix our regressive and inequitable tax structure, and I can’t wait any longer.
You see, I’ve been a vocal proponent of fixing our state’s broken school funding system since its negative effects hit me personally as a student at Battle Ground High School in the southwest corner of our state. And I’m 35 years old now.
As a teenage girl I saw the devastating impact our broken system had on our schools. Our district saw three levies fail in the four years I was in high school. I watched as important programs, sports and even our librarians were cut due to lack of funds. Our student body president’s graduation speech was essentially about how our community didn’t care about us. My classmates and I felt this in real time. Now, nearly 20 years later, we’re full grown adults, and yet children all over Washington face the same problem.
I’m thrilled the State Supreme Court is shining a very bright light on the issue, but they haven’t gone far enough in forcing the legislature to do it’s part: determine the specific remedy for funding our schools. Our elected representatives have the responsibility to take the tough votes and do what is necessary to meet our constitutional obligation to amply provide for the basic education of our children.
But that’s not happening. I’d love nothing more than to see the state legislature replicate what was done in New Jersey in 1976 (as highlighted here by The Stranger last week and Slate last month): create an income tax to meet the responsibility of school funding.
But I’m not holding my breath for the legislature to do the right thing.
The strategy deployed by our Democratically controlled government in Olympia these past nearly 20 years simply hasn’t worked. It won’t be solved with closed-door meetings. Why? Because there is no way we’re going to fix this problem without raising taxes. Republicans refuse to raise taxes. And frankly, many Democrats refuse as well, even if that is just in their silence and inaction on behalf of the people. We can’t overcome Republican greed and obstruction without Democratic legislators who are willing to make this their number one priority.
It’s time for a whole new strategy to fix our broken tax system. If Republicans in Olympia (and some Democrats!) won’t work with us, then I say we go around them.
Democratic legislators join activists and community leaders to talk directly to voters about the future of Washington State and ask them to make the necessary changes to the tax code for us to live our progressive values (i.e. strong public education) and have a thriving economy fueled by innovation and entrepreneurship. There is a specific role for progressive legislators to play: go all across the state and make the case for funding our schools with fair and sufficient revenue sources. We must go into those districts where legislators don’t agree with us and talk to their constituents directly. These progressive legislators would help lead the conversation—in partnership with local activists and community leaders—with voters about how we need to move away from the extraordinarily regressive state reliance on sales tax and move toward a progressive income tax—particularly on high earners—and ask them to take the tough vote their elected representatives will not. To increase our chances of success, we propose a package that also includes taxing capital gains, while decreasing the sales tax, property tax, as well as the B&O tax, which negatively impacts small businesses.
Stop negotiating with Republicans in Olympia (who are not actually negotiating, and are really just making extremist demands), and instead take this fight directly to the people via ballot initiative. This shouldn’t be that novel of an idea to readers. Tim Eyman has had us on defense for years by going to the ballot. So let’s go on offense! Because when we do, we win. And news flash: we’re one of only seven states left in the country that does NOT have an income tax. Our time is coming. (Yes, we lost in 2010 with I-1098, but the scope of that initiative was too narrow [it only added an income tax and didn’t address reducing other types of tax] and lacked the type of legislative leadership identified here.) We just need the right strategy to get there. Most of the major progressive policy change in this state of late has happened via the direct will of the people. Ahem: legalization of recreational marijuana, universal background checks on guns, marriage equality for our gay and lesbian residents…need I say more? But taxes are tricky in this state, so I’d suggest a multi-part strategy that sets us up for success, and an important part of that strategy includes smart moves by legislators who share our vision and act as partners on the inside.
First, we need to show voters the evidence that proves the rich and powerful aren’t paying what they should pay. Rep. Reuven Carlyle, who chairs the House Finance Committee, has introduced a package of bills—some even with Republican cosponsors!—aimed at bringing more transparency and accountability to our tax code. But they’ve gone nowhere because Boeing and other large corporate interests in this state are blocking it. Large corporations in our state aren’t paying their fair share and they don’t want the voters to know it. So we should send these bills to the people (hopefully by a legislative referendum to the people) as part of a package of “good government” measures that meet the Republican ethos of “efficient government” and the Democratic ethos of “responsive government.”
We would include bills in this package that would automatically sunset all tax exemptions, put new and old tax exemptions through rigorous evaluation to ensure they are delivering the outcomes promised, and allow reporting that would show the estimated revenue lost to (and the beneficiaries of) the 650+ tax preferences given to large corporations and other entities.
Second, we need to get more voters engaged in our democracy. Again, the legislature has failed to pass any of this directly, so a referendum is probably our best bet. Sending a “democracy reform” package to the voters that enables increased civic participation, such as opt-out voter registration, pre-registration of teenagers, the Voting Rights Act, and more. Oregon and California are already doing this and it’s time for Washington to catch up. When voters participate in our democracy, we’re a blue state. When they don’t, we end up with a Republican controlled Senate and now stand on the verge of losing control of the entire legislature.
Finally, we let the people step up and fund our schools by a ballot initiative. We will need help from key legislators to make this initiative successful. They need to talk directly to those who are feeling the impacts (like the parents in Pasco and Seattle experiencing teacher strikes because our educators are courageously standing up and saying “enough!” to the lack of funding). These legislators need to use that tax preference data to show that we need to stop “giving away the farm” through tax exemptions to the rich. We also need them to speak from experience that our current funding model is simply not sustainable, nor sufficient, to meet our constitutional obligation to our kids. This is not a conversation that can be led by outside advocacy groups alone; it must be a partnership with legislators elected by We the People to steward the entire ship. By laying the groundwork for success, we have a chance at meeting our constitutional obligation to fully fund our schools, but not do it at the expense of everything else we hold near and dear in the state, which also contributes to the success of our children and communities.
For this to succeed, it is critical we have legislators in Olympia who share this vision. This is not a strategy that can be executed simply from outside advocacy organizations. We need partners on the inside. And we have a strong opportunity to get new partners in there immediately. We have three Democratically held districts who are about to appoint new legislators to fill unexpired terms (the 19th in southwestern Washington, the 36th in northwest Seattle, and the 48th in Bellevue and Redmond). I suggest my fellow Democrats urge potential appointees to subscribe to this strategy, and be a partner on the inside. And if they’re not, please appoint someone else who will be.
Noel Frame is a community organizer and communications specialist residing in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle. She was a 2012 candidate for the State Legislature, running to represent the 36th District in the State House, as a Democrat. The Stranger endorsed her in both the primary and general elections. She is a 1998 graduate of Battle Ground High School in Clark County, Wash.