When our state's rural Republicans toss around pejoratives like "socialism," "redistribution of wealth," and "welfare state," they're usually hurling them at the People's Republic of Seattle and the Democratic legislators we send to Olympia. As a commenter on the Spokane Spokesman-Review's website recently carped: "Eastern Washington... has always been shorted/slighted where state expenditures are concerned! Nearly to the point that we don't exist!"
That's not an uncommon complaint. Republican lawmakers make a similar accusation, albeit more veiled, that the state is serving as an engine of wealth redistribution. However, the money is not exactly moving in the direction most Eastern Washingtonians suspect.
Indeed, if Washington is a welfare state, it is residents in these mostly rural, mostly Eastern, mostly Republican counties who are the biggest beneficiaries, while taxpayers here in the blue parts of the state are left footing the bill. And while your typical liberal Seattleite might be neither surprised nor disturbed at this revelation, the degree of the gap between who benefits from state government and who pays for it may come as a bit of a shock.
How big is this disparity? According to 2008 budget figures compiled by the state's Office of Financial Management at the request of Representatives Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle) and Glenn Anderson (R-Fall City), King County, with roughly 29 percent of the state population, produced 42 percent of state tax revenues, yet it received back less than 26 percent of state benefits. That's a return of only 62 cents on the dollar for our state's Democratic stronghold.
Compare that to the generous $3.16 return on each dollar enjoyed by taxpayers in hard Republican Ferry County in deep northeastern Washington. All in all, only six counties qualified as "net donors" to the rest of the state—San Juan, King, Skagit, Kittitas, Whatcom, and Snohomish—while the remaining 33 counties enjoyed an average return on investment of over $1.40 on every tax dollar sent to Olympia.
The Seattle Times dismissed the issue in late January as "neither new nor news." But with $4.6 billion of budget cuts in the offing, now is exactly the time to debate these numbers. "We need to challenge the political bureaucracy to get outside of its comfort zone," Carlyle stresses, "and engage directly in difficult questions of how taxes and spending really flow." One could argue that as lawmakers struggle to divvy up ever-scarcer resources, the question of who's funding whom matters more than ever.
This expenditure/revenue disparity extends across every major spending category of the state's general fund. For example, according to 2008 data compiled by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the state spent $6,322 per student in King County to cover K–12 "basic education" costs, ranking us near the bottom statewide, while the usual red-county suspects jockeyed for a position at the top. The winner: Lincoln County, scoring an impressive $10,356 per student.
Break the numbers down by school district, and the chasm yawns wider, as the high cost of subsidizing the many small districts that dot Washington's rural countryside add up to produce per-student expenditures that border on the absurd. The tiny Evergreen School District in Stevens County received $36,566 in state funds for each of its seven enrolled students, while Adams County's Benge School District (a whopping enrollment of nine) topped the charts at $43,924 per student. By comparison, the Seattle School District, much maligned for its administrative overhead and other inefficiencies, managed to get by on only $6,740 in state funding per student, just below the state average, while Skamania County's Stevenson-Carson School District cost state taxpayers a paltry $5,371 per enrollee.
But perhaps the most glaring example of our rural welfare state comes in the category of "welfare" itself, where 2008 data from the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) clearly illustrates just how dependent on Western Washington tax dollars many Eastern Washingtonians have become. King County, home to our state's largest concentration of urban poor, drew only $538 of DSHS expenditures per capita, ranking it 30th out of 39 counties. Meanwhile, such bastions of self-proclaimed self-sufficiency as rural Adams, Ferry, Pend Oreille, and Okanogan Counties consumed per capita DSHS benefits of over $900, while Yakima County—Washington's "fruit basket"—topped the charts at $1,129 per person.
To put this level of dependency in perspective, 83 cents out of every dollar Yakima County sends to Olympia is paid back in DSHS benefits alone. Tiny Ferry County actually receives more in just DSHS benefits—$1.14 on the dollar—than the total tax revenues it pays to the state! Schools, corrections, higher education, everything else... that's all gravy.
The irony here is not that those who benefit most from state spending are paying the least; that's kinda the way these things are supposed to work. No, the irony is that those rural communities that are most dependent on the state—whose roads and schools and other essential public services couldn't possibly be maintained without generous state subsidies—are also those least likely to vote for the tax dollars necessary to sustain these services. Just look at the map on the previous page: Those counties that receive the most money back on the dollar are also those that are most likely to vote Republican. But it's a disconnect that just can't continue forever.
In the short term, without the sort of new tax revenues red-county voters bitterly oppose, draconian budget cuts will be unavoidable. And since these counties currently enjoy a disproportionate share of state spending, it's hard to see how they can avoid a disproportionate share of the cuts.
In the long term, the red counties have by far the most to lose from the devolution of state services. Had King County's school districts been funded proportionate to what King County taxpayers put into state coffers, our schools would have received an additional one billion dollars from the state in 2008; now that's the kind of data point, if properly understood, that could erode local, blue-county support for statewide solutions.
Which perhaps explains why so few lawmakers seem to want these data points properly understood.