A Nov. 8 article in The Columbian prompts me to express my feelings about how difficult it must have been for Gov. Chris Gregoire to explain to students at the Clark County Skills Center why the state faces more deep cuts to education. The students must have sensed how agonizing it was for her to bring this bad news. After all, she has excelled in previous budgets in prioritizing K-12 and higher education. Gregoire told the students that more than half of the budget goes to education and that much of the other half is off-limits to cuts: federally mandated Medicaid, pensions, debt service, and other needs. Without new revenue, her hands are tied.
The funding areas in education that are not protected by the State Constitution, Article 1X, and the Judge Robert Doran decision (1977) are subject to cuts. These include levy equalization, school busing, early childhood education and others. (I personally would argue that all of these are basic for equality and fairness for every child).
So, what should we concerned Washington citizens do? I want to preface my next comments by a disclaimer. I am a strong believer in our state’s initiative and referendum system. However, in the recent past, by initiative, the people have chosen to require the Legislature to fund class size reductions in K-12 and increase teachers’ salaries. All worthy causes; all cost money. Recently the people passed three initiatives that reduced revenues or made it more difficult to raise revenue. First, voters repealed the bottled water tax that the Legislature had passed in 2010. Second, voters required the Legislature to fund extra training of caregivers at a cost of $70 million. Third, voters required the Legislature to have a two-thirds vote in each House to raise taxes (although I would argue that you can’t amend the constitution by initiative).
Now for a little legislative history similar to our current dilemma. In the late ’70s, after House and Senate Democratic majorities pushed for tax increases, Democrats lost the majority in the House and later in the Senate when a Democratic senator changed parties. Republican John Spellman was elected governor over Jim McDermott. The Democrats’ attempt to raise taxes changed the state’s leadership.
By the time Republicans started writing the 1981-83 biennial budget, the state’s revenues dropped by $1 billion to $2 billion. The no-tax-increase Republican majority faced severely cutting programs and/or raising new taxes. Gov. Spellman showed leadership. He proposed cuts in several programs, increased college tuition by 50 percent, placed a surcharge on most taxes by 10 percent and proposed to put the sales tax back on food, which the people’s initiative had removed a couple of years earlier.
For the most part, in the House, the effort to add new taxes was bipartisan. In the Senate, 22 of 25 majority Republicans put their political lives on the line. Three Democrats joined for final passage. With the leadership of the governor and bipartisan action of the Legislature, much public service was spared, particularly education at all levels.
In the 1982 elections, though, Republicans paid the price for their tax vote. The people elected a Democratic majority in both Houses, and Spellman lost to Democrat Booth Gardner in 1984. Shortly after, the economy improved and new revenue allowed a bipartisan Legislature to remove most of the new taxes, including the food tax. I am sure the people applauded the bipartisan effort to put the health and education of our citizens above their interest in getting re-elected, and further applauded the effort to remove those taxes later when new revenue came in.
Today we face a similar dilemma, but more serious. Without new revenue, we will leave our most vulnerable people destitute, and severely cut K-12 and higher education. Earlier I asked what we concerned citizens can do. I urge the people and the 147 legislators to stand behind the governor’s plan or something similar.
After 30 years in the House and the Senate, I know taxes aren’t popular. However, the devastation that could occur to our children and their futures should not be popular, either.
Al Bauer of Vancouver served in the state House from 1971 to 1980 and in the state Senate from 1981 to 2001.