Olympia's New Clothes
People Claim the Legislative Session Was a Success, But It Actually Screwed Over Women, Immigrant Children, and Metro Bus Riders
Selectively read the newspaper opinion pages, and you might think our last-minute back-from-the-brink state budget deal was a huge win for senate majority leader Rodney Tom and his allegedly bipartisan Majority Coalition Caucus (MCC). "A surprisingly good budget from a divided Legislature," kvells the News Tribune of Tacoma. "A hard-fought budget compromise that prioritizes education funding," congratulates the Seattle Times. "It won't be easy for Democrats to admit," smirks Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat, but "Tom is without doubt the big winner of the year so far in state politics."
What a bunch of credulous hacks.
Olympia may have been wearing new clothes, but the naked truth is that Tom's tenure has been an embarrassment at best.
After six months of grandstanding and hostage taking, two special sessions, and the very real threat of an economy-wrecking state government shutdown, the legislature passed a compromise budget on June 27 that was nearly identical to the budget Democrats pushed through the state house on June 6, apart from significantly less money for education. And from a spending perspective, even that June 6 budget wasn't much different from the one house Democrats passed way back on April 12, in plenty of time to finish their job without a special session or two.
"The budget is structurally the house budget," says House Finance Committee chair Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle).
Kim Justice, a policy analyst for the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, agrees. "It's a pretty status quo budget," assesses Justice. "It makes some good investments," but compared to the senate's original budget proposal, it mostly just "avoids some pretty horrendous things."
When it comes to education, the compromise two-year budget does include an additional $944 million in spending for K–12 schools above "maintenance level" (the amount required to maintain current services at constant levels). Yay for our kids! But even that's deceptive, because it also includes $295 million in savings from once again suspending cost-of-living adjustments for teachers. (Washington's teachers will now go six years without a raise.) Total policy changes—new K–12 spending minus the cuts—comes to only $649 million: That's how much more money this budget really puts into our K–12 schools. (Unless, of course, you don't consider paying teachers to be a legitimate cost of operating public schools.)
That's better than past budgets, but it's only about half of what Democrats had originally proposed, and it falls far short of what's required to meet the demands of the state supreme court's recent McCleary decision, which ruled that the state was failing to meet its constitutional "paramount duty" to amply fund our public schools.
So much for a budget that "prioritizes education funding."
As for colleges and universities, the legislature's accomplishments there have also been overblown. Reporters and editorialists have touted the budget's 12 percent increase in higher-education funding. That's enough to freeze tuition hikes for at least a year, but it doesn't begin to make a dent in the 82 percent hike in resident undergraduate tuition over the past four years.
That's not a fix—it's a reprieve.
To their credit, Tom and his MCC did achieve their primary objective: They blocked house Democratic efforts to raise $1.1 billion in new revenue by closing $475 million in unproductive tax exemptions and extending $600 million in expiring business taxes. "That was their central strategic priority," says Carlyle, "to prevent new revenue at any cost."
Instead of closing loopholes and extending business taxes, the compromise budget largely makes up the $1.1 billion difference by siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars away from the public works assistance account (a capital fund that helps local governments pay for critical public infrastructure), spending substantially less on K–12 schools, and relying on revised caseload and revenue forecasts to brighten the state's fiscal future.
So that's the budget it took six months to squeeze out of Olympia during Tom's grand experiment in divided government—pretty much the same unsustainable budget we got last time around, but with a modest bump for K–12 schools and no new cuts to colleges and universities. And, of course, little new revenue. Not that senate Democrats ever had the votes to raise revenue in the first place. From a budgetary perspective, Tom's coup changed little.
So then why did it take so long to pass a budget?
Tom and his MCC colleagues (you know, Republicans) spent most of the three sessions fighting to fund education by gutting the rest of state government. They put multiple social service programs on the chopping block. They attempted to cap all future noneducation spending at population plus inflation. They tried to kill Guaranteed Education Tuition, Washington's popular prepaid tuition program. They sought to replace state workers' traditional pension programs with risky 401(k)s. And they held up fixing a $160 million technical glitch in the state's voter-approved estate tax, by attempting to tie it to unrelated nonbudgetary "reforms."
On all counts, Democrats refused to cave.
Tom's unrealistic right-wing agenda was simply never going to pass the Democratic house. So in the end, Tom's biggest accomplishment was neither blocking tax increases nor promoting conservative fiscal reforms; it was giving the Republican minority the power to block major non-budget-related bills: the Reproductive Parity Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the State Dream Act. These are bills that even Tom claimed to support, bills that would have passed had they only been allowed to reach the senate floor.
And that is Tom's true legacy: the women who will be denied protection from health-care discrimination, the minority communities that will be denied access to equal representation in their local governments, and the otherwise qualified immigrant children who will be denied access to the financial aid they need to climb out of poverty via a college education.
And then there's Tom's biggest accomplishment of all: his refusal to pass a desperately needed transportation funding package that, among other things, would have allowed King County to stave off a 17 percent cut in Metro bus service by enacting a motor vehicle excise tax (MVET). Republicans opposed a transportation package, funded by 10.5-cent gas-tax increase, largely because it would have funded light rail across a proposed (but now dead) Columbia River Crossing bridge. Tom is very blunt that he is simply holding Metro bus riders hostage:
"If you don't link [the MVET and the gas tax], what happens is, once the transit crowd gets what they consider they want, the road package gets torpedoed," Tom told the Seattle Times.
Which is, frankly, totally fucking outrageous.
King County did everything the state asked us to do. Since sales-tax revenue collapsed during the Great Recession, we found savings, we streamlined service, we negotiated concessions with unions, and we raised fares four years straight. When the state imposed an insulting two-thirds supermajority requirement for passing a two-year car tab in order to get us through until a permanent funding solution could be found, we even managed the bipartisan support to do that. Then King County executive Dow Constantine got together with the mayors of the cities and developed a funding solution that would work for everyone. We didn't ask the state for money. No, we went to Olympia with a simple request: Allow us to tax ourselves to pay for the bus service and local road maintenance we need.
And Rodney Tom just told us to fuck off.
Newspaper editorialists can cloak this budget in all the praise they want. But if Tom is the "big winner," the only thing he's won is a huge legislative victory against women, minorities, immigrant children, and Metro bus riders—many of them his own constituents!