King County Council member Larry Phillips is forming an exploratory committee for a potential challenge against King County Executive Ron Sims.
The decision is timely—and a long time coming. Two weeks ago, Sims announced the county would have to cut $68 million from its budget in 2009, a crisis Phillips and other critics called both predictable and utterly avoidable.
The cuts are more than superficial. They slash away at the heart and soul of county government—policing (Sheriff Sue Rahr predicts she will have to eliminate more than 100 deputies), public health (the county's cash-strapped health clinics may have to close), and human services (whose funding from the county will be slashed over three years to nothing).
Phillips blames the crisis on a structural shortfall in the county's budget. Thanks to Tim Eyman's 1 percent annual cap on property-tax increases (overturned in court but reinstated by the state legislature), the county takes in far less than it spends each year. Sales and other tax revenues, likewise, have failed to rise as fast as spending. Meanwhile, parts of the county that are urbanized but unincorporated—like White Center—use more resources than they pay for.
All of this, Phillips says, has been common knowledge around King County for years. In the early part of the decade, the county cut more than $135 million from its annual budget. "When you cut that much, you reach a plateau—and so we had relatively good years in 2006 and 2007," says Phillips, who chairs the council's capital budget committee. "But then, oops, wait a minute—the structural problems are still there, and off the cliff you go again. Once you understand that, and [Sims] does, it's easy to anticipate that this is a problem that needs to be dealt with."
Therein lies what will undoubtedly be Phillips's campaign stump speech: Sims knew damn good and well the county had a serious financial problem—but instead of turning to the state legislature for solutions, he declared victory. "He said to the public and the press that the era of big deficits was over, and that just wasn't true," Phillips says. If he had been in Sims's position, Phillips says, he would have "gone to Olympia and said, 'We need you to help us'"—by lifting the property-tax cap, providing the county with new revenue sources, or implementing some other structural fix.
Statements like that are easy to make in hindsight, of course—if Hillary Clinton had known then what she knows now, she wouldn't have voted for the war. But if Phillips wants to convince voters to toss out a 12-year incumbent, that contrast—while Phillips argued for change, Sims declared the problem solved—will be the strongest weapon in his arsenal.