After a couple years of perpetual budget crisis, things are only getting worse.
Last week the state announced that reduced revenues would force painful, across-the-board spending cuts, on top of the billions in cuts already endured, and with even more looming in the coming session. And yesterday, both Seattle and King County announced downright gloomy budget proposals, also piling cuts upon cuts with no relief in sight.
Republicans and their surrogates on the editorial boards will tell you that this is a consequence of Democratic spending gone wild... state and local governments that expanded irresponsibly during the fat years, with little thought or planning for the lean; the Seattle Times has even attempted to brand its call for dramatically smaller government "Reset 2010." But while lean times do dictate leaner state and local government, the truth is that our persistent budget deficits are more the result of a collapse in revenue than profligate spending.
Indeed, by nearly any meaningful measure, Washington's state and local governments have been steadily shrinking over most of the past two decades, through both boom times and bust. You wouldn't know it from reading the papers, but state tax revenue as a percentage of the total economy has fallen from 6.6% in 1995 to about 5.5% today, while per capita state spending in IPD-adjusted dollars fell by 10% over the same period.
And those aren't numbers you can easily dismiss as mere liberal claptrap. Even the conservative Tax Foundation — the same think tank frequently cited by Tim Eyman — reports that our state and local tax burden plunged from 10.4% in 1994 to 8.9% in 2008, dropping Washington from 17th to 35th place nationally in only fifteen short years.
You know... Dems gone wild.
And all that is before the effects of the Great Recession have been fully calculated. Sales tax revenues, on which Washington over-relies for the bulk of its operating budget, plummeted in advance of the economic downturn as anxious consumers slashed spending. And even though this recession officially ended in June of 2009, and the economy has been growing, if modestly, ever since, tax revenues continue to decline.
How is all this possible? Simple math. No state relies on the sales tax as much as we do, and yet in our post-industrial, service/information economy, the sale of taxable goods represents an ever shrinking portion of our state economy... and with it, so does the government.
In other words, what we have is a long term structural revenue deficit that virtually assures that Republicans will achieve by default the "small government" agenda they've consistently failed to sell at the polls. You know, if we continue to do nothing to fix our tax system.
I've long argued that there is a legitimate public debate to be had over the proper size and scope of government, and it's a debate I don't fear, because I firmly believe that a majority of the arguments and the voters are on my side. But it's a debate that we'll never have unless and until our mainstream media puts aside its simplistic coverage of budgetary issues and starts educating itself, let alone the public.
Otherwise, as these recent budget announcements have shown, we're going to gradually get that small government dystopia, whether we want it or not.