King County Executive Dow Constantine is at MOHAI delivering his annual State of the County speech this morning, and I hate to spoil the surprise for you, but according to an advanced draft of the speech (PDF), the state of the county is "strong."
Phew. That's a relief.
These generally aren't the most exciting sort of speeches, and Constantine certainly isn't the most exciting sort of politician. But to be fair, counties, with their focus on providing mundane public services, aren't the most exciting sort of government, so it's kind of a good match. And while it's no "I Have a Dream" speech, Constantine's spiel is not without vision, if constrained by both resources and the times, not to mention the limitations of the office.
The big headlines coming out of the speech are new initiatives to combat gun violence, enroll 180,000 uninsured in Obamacare, and connect the county's 127,000 veterans and their families to available services. None of the initiatives require additional appropriations, but all three could prove a boon to county residents.
On the gun violence issue, Constantine has signed an executive order directing Seattle & King County Public Health to develop comprehensive, data-driven strategies for preventing gun violence. "Gun violence is a preventable public health problem," Constantine emphasized, an observation that may sound kinda obvious. Yet thanks to the efforts of the National Rifle Association to block such programs, it's not clear that there's a comparable local or federal model on which to base such a public health approach toward gun violence.
Under Constantine's executive order, developed in consultation with Public Health, the agency will use existing resources to collect data on who is being harmed by guns, who owns guns and how they use them, and who sells guns. Based on this data the agency will produce a quarterly Youth Shooting Review modeled on the existing Child Death Review, to look for patterns in how guns are used by and against children. The overall goal is to "understand the underlying causes of gun violence in King County - and develop real-world solutions to prevent real-life tragedies."
Six hundred and twenty-five King County residents were killed by guns over the past five years alone, two-thirds of them by suicide. In fact, 40 percent of all suicides in King County are by firearms. "If we can prevent one child, one innocent bystander, anyone, from being a victim of gun violence," says Constantine, "our effort as a community will have been worth it."
Given our nation's historical approach toward the issue, embracing a public health rather than criminal justice approach toward gun violence is more radical than it seems, and represents a long needed shift in public policy.
In his second major initiative, Constantine announced an ambitious outreach effort aimed at enrolling 180,000 uninsured King County residents in subsidized health insurance or Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. By maximizing participation in the federal programs, the county will improve the overall health of its residents while saving money on its own health and social services. It is a smart, focused move.
The county's Equity and Social Justice team will spearhead the effort, coordinating outreach efforts through every county agency with direct contact with the public. Constantine also named a Leadership Circle of volunteer civic leaders to work with community groups, healthcare organizations, and businesses.
Constantine's veterans initiative is similar in scope and purpose, aimed at connecting the county's 127,000 veterans—more than the entire population of Bellevue—with the services they've earned. "Four of every ten veterans are unaware of their benefits or how to access them," Constantine explained. Connecting these veterans and their families with their federal benefits is not only the moral thing to do, it too would ultimately reduce the strain on county services.
And like the healthcare outreach program, Constantine has named a panel of distinguished volunteers to advise in this effort, including retired chief nurse of the Washington State National Guard, Colonel Grethe Cammermeyer.
At this point you might have noticed a pattern, and it's one repeated throughout Constantine's speech: None of what Constantine is proposing has a price tag on it. The various panels and studies may eventually come back with recommendations for future appropriations, but for the moment, all of these initiatives are being conducted with existing county resources, and/or through efforts of volunteers and third-party organizations. While the state of the county may be "strong"—Constantine repeats the word six times—its revenues remain weak, and under the current tax structure they will only weaken over time. It's a constraint that may have forced some needed reforms, but in the long run prevents the county from investing in the human, natural, and physical infrastructure necessary to maintain our future welfare and prosperity.
Constantine makes a point throughout his speech of highlighting the new efficiencies the county has achieved—the reining in of healthcare inflation for county employees, the revitalized Regional Animal Services, and improved productivity at Metro Transit, for example. But a constant counterpoint to these reforms is Constantine's repeated warning that we are failing to maintain the infrastructure we have, let alone invest in building the infrastructure necessary to serve future generations.
I had the chance to sit down with Constantine late last week (more on that in a followup post), and our conversation constantly strayed toward the topic of revenue—property tax revenue growth absurdly capped at one percent annually and an antiquated sales tax that can't possibly keep up with inflation regardless of how fast our economy recovers. Constantine emphasized that he has thus far focused on "remaking county government" in response to this fiscal reality, but the low hanging fruit has already been plucked. "It is an inescapable fact," Constantine told me, "that we don't have the money to maintain the infrastructure our grandparents gave us."
In that context, the choice of MOHAI as the setting for this speech is not accidental. Surrounded by the history of our fore bearers, Constantine is making an appeal to live up to their example, proclaiming us as "stewards of their legacy." And to do so, Constantine insists that it is the responsibility of leaders throughout the state to be honest with voters about the cost of delivering the government we need.
"It no longer makes sense to finance our 21st century future with 19th century tools," explains Constantine. "We are not serving the people well if we’re not leveling with them about what it takes to pave the roads or save the buses or educate the next generation."
Here's hoping today's State of the County speech is just the kickoff to that long overdue conversation.