The math is pretty simple. You cannot erase Washington State's $2.8 billion budget shortfall by just trimming more and more fat from government spending. It will not work—unless by "fat" you mean entire state programs such as, say, Basic Health, which gives some 60,000 low-income residents access to rudimentary health care. (And even if you did cut that program, the outcome would, like many similarly drastic proposals, come with some pricey blowback—in this case, skyrocketing costs to hospitals and the public from people using emergency rooms as primary-care facilities.)
This is why state lawmakers and the governor believe the only way to balance the state budget is by combining cuts and significant tax increases. But here in Seattle, over at the offices of the state's largest newspaper, the Seattle Times, the thinking—or, perhaps more accurately, the obsession—is all about one thing: fighting new taxes tooth and nail.
Ever since the budget crisis came into focus, the Times has been lambasting lawmakers in Olympia with a series of angry, Tea Party–ish editorials that first argued against any tax increases whatsoever and then, when that position became untenable, argued for very limited tax increases and a slash-and-burn approach to finding budget savings.
The paper's opening position was rigid and unsentimental: no new taxes, and let the chips fall where they may. On January 15, seeing that this view wasn't widely shared by state leaders, the paper's editorial page warned legislators that they would be "playing with dynamite" if, in an effort to raise taxes, they suspended Tim Eyman's I-960. (That initiative, passed by voters in 2007, requires an unworkable two-thirds majority of both houses of the legislature to raise taxes.)
Earlier this month, the Democrat- controlled legislature ignored the Times—which further warned on February 4 that "this is not tax party time"—and temporarily suspended Eyman's I-960 in order to responsibly deal with the current budget crisis.
After which, the Times latched firmly onto the idea that an out-of-control money party was getting underway. "Tax increases are now the preferred inhalant in Olympia," the paper charged in a February 10 editorial, expressing regret that legislators (whom it seemed to view as a bunch of junkie pickpockets) couldn't "just say no" to taxes.
People trying to balance the budget don't have many kind words for the paper's crusade. Representative Ross Hunter (D-48), chair of the House Finance Committee, said that approaching such a huge problem from an "absolutist" position "is not a helpful way to think about the decisions you have to make."
To be fair, the Times stepped slightly away from its absolutist position after it became clear that taxes were going to be raised. Now the paper's editorial board feels it can accept increased levies on out-of-state banks and food companies, members of corporate boards, and purchasers of manure-handling equipment. Those narrow revenue measures won't even come close to balancing the budget, however, and the Times' tear continues, including headlines like "Legislature shouldn't smother state in taxes."
For example, on February 18, the paper came out against the governor's proposed $148 million tax increase on "hazardous materials." This tax increase was "unacceptable" to the Times because it would supposedly hurt the state's five oil refineries (which collectively made $52 billion in profits last year). Then on February 21, with the Times' antitax rage apparently building toward uncontrollable levels, the paper's editorial page barked out that it wanted to "take the legislature by the lapels and shake it."
Let's put this whole tantrum in some context. What Governor Gregoire has actually proposed is $1 billion in painful cuts—suspending funding for smaller class sizes and halting subsidies for child care for low-income families, for example—mixed with $700 million in fund transfers (for example, dipping back into the state's "rainy day fund") and $435 million in help from the federal government. The governor is only pursuing $600 million in new taxes, which is less than a quarter of the amount of the budget shortfall. (Some Democratic legislators are considering raising even more money through new taxes—perhaps $900 million to $1 billion worth, which is still a fraction of the budget hole.)
Nonetheless, any of these new tax numbers are way too much, says the infuriated Times. The people can stand $300 million in new taxes, tops, the paper now believes, and if some "culling" of well-paid state employees needs to be done, and if the state's entire disability assistance program needs to be jettisoned, so be it. (Not offered by the Times as a money-saving measure: repeal of the new 40 percent break on business and occupation taxes for newspaper publishers, which the Times lobbied for and benefits from, and which costs the state $1.3 million a year.)
"There's a disconnect between what those in the senate see as the size of the hole and the smallness of the solutions that the Seattle Times has offered," a senior senate staffer complained. Senator Ed Murray (D-43), chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus, said: "The editorials don't completely come together for me."
And how does the Times explain itself?
Apparently it's been "smothered" into silence—editorial page editor Ryan Blethen did not respond to multiple requests for comment.