THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE

A spectre haunts Olympia, the silent spectre of politicians and their overlords grappling to deal with a world that’s changing before their eyes.  

A couple of weeks ago, the white smoke emerged from the governor’s office, signaling that the cabal of budget negotiators had come to an understanding on the size of the budget box and all that was left was to fill in the various line items. Everyone expected the House Democrats to cave on their last progressive tax proposal (capital gains) and the Senate Republicans to let some loophole closures outweigh their new business tax breaks by at least enough to balance a meet-in-the-middle budget.  

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But then the Republican leaders took the deal back to their caucus, where apparently all the crazy hasn’t been tamped down yet.  Their colleagues told them to turn right around and go remind David Schumacher and the rest of the world that they still have a two-vote majority in the smaller of the legislative chambers, so they expect to get every damn thing they want.  There will be no loophole left behind.  

Since then, it’s been radio silence.

That silence has echoed the larger silence that has grown louder every day: the silence of the corporate community on the issue of taxes and revenue.  There have been no one day walkouts from the executive suites.  Groups like the Washington Roundtable and the AWB have remained mum with the confidence that real power is always heard, even when it doesn’t speak.  

As we’ve pointed out before here at the blog, Washington is exactly the bipartisan and bi-polar state that these folks built.  The Redmond, Bellevue, and Seattle swells can cloak themselves in the progressive garb of gay marriage, legal weed, background checks, and the dream act while at the same time riding herd on an increasingly regressive society of haves and have nots.  For a long time now in Olympia, the schizo business agenda has been invest in education and transportation but don’t raise any revenue to pay for those investments.  The financier-driven policies of accumulation and privatization have stretched the middle class and the public infrastructure that the upper crust depends on for social stability and the rest of us just depend on to the breaking point.  The cracks are getting so big that the defenders of the status quo are starting to look and sound like those rich people in California who feel it’s wildly unfair to ask them to turn off their fountains and stop watering their putting greens while the rest of the state bakes. 

Meanwhile, the roar against the silence of the privileged is getting louder and louder.  Forty thousand teachers have walked out.  (And for those of you still clinging to the idea that this was the work of union bosses, not teachers, enough already.  Half the teachers in the state don’t walk out because a Svengali union leader told them to, they walk out because they’re fed up and disgusted.)  Poll after poll shows that big majorities of voters support those teachers.  More polls show that voters support a modest capital gains tax, both for the revenue and the fairness.  

And now even The Seattle Times says it’s a good idea.  As our friend Goldy over at Horses Ass pointed out, “it’s pretty stunning to see” such a heretofore anti-tax editorial board “state their support for the tax so bluntly.”  And it’s hard to imagine that they would be stating it so bluntly if at least some of the silent business elites weren’t tacitly giving them the OK.  

So here’s hoping that the Republican refusal to compromise has stiffened the Democrats’ spines and made them also less willing to compromise.  From the day they introduced their tax package, the House Democrats have steadfastly claimed they have the votes to pass it.  So maybe it’s time they just went ahead and did that, made a few headlines of their own, and brought the state tax code just a little bit closer to its inevitable leap into the twenty-first century.    

Hell, most people usually blame Republicans for government shutdowns anyway.     

OH DANNY BOY

In the strange bedfellows department, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat has become the new head cheerleader for the Washington state legislature’s Republicans.  On Wednesday he declared them winners of a legislative session that hasn’t ended yet.  He’s very impressed with their having “tamped down the crazy” by refraining from gay bashing and assaults on reproductive rights and only “one outburst of climate denialism” and just a single flirtation “with a gun-nut rally.”
 
He also really liked the Republican press conference on Tuesday.  And what was not to like, what with the bravura performances of such classics as “We Have to Live Within Our Means Just Like Barney and Betty at the Breakfast Table,” “Remember the Bad Old Days Beforethe Recession When Democrats Spent Like Drunken Sailors,” and, our favorite here at the blog, “A Capital Gains Tax is Really an 
Income Tax and a Gateway Drug to More Income Tax.”  (And this sort of semantic scare tactic is really the last refuge of scoundrels.  Sure, a capital gains tax is a tax on income that rich people’s money makes while they sleep—wake up in the morning, fire up the computer while you’re making coffee, click on your portfolio bookmark and bang, another hundred grand.  So go ahead, call it an income tax, call it a fire hydrant if you want, it’s still a tax that would not make even the slightest dent on the lifestyle of the 32,000 people who would pay it.)
 
Westneat is particularly fond of the way that the four Republicans looked like Mr. Bumble telling Screen shot 2015-06-05 at 10.13.43 AMOliver Twist to go screw himself and how Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler “sniffed” that the House Democrats “have to show us a need for new revenue, and they have not.”  For Westneat, this pithy platitude is game, set, and match, since the feckless Democrats haven’t “made a coherent case” for new revenue.  
 
It’s easy to see how he could feel this way, given the House Democrats’ press conference on Monday.  Representatives Pat Sullivan, Ross Hunter, and Reuven Carlyle made no attempt to look like minor characters out of a Dickens novel and instead of tossing around empty sound bites, they made the whole thing a snoozefest by talking about actual policy and the specifics of their budget proposal.  Representative Hunter, for example, when making the case for new revenue, said that the House budget doesn’t push the bulk of McCleary to the next biennium the way that the Senate budget does.  He also pointed out that the House budget gives teachers a modest wage increase, funds early learning, and doesn’t fund the health care exchange on poor peoples’ backs the way that the Senate budget does.  He also said that the House budget meets the federal court order to stop letting mentally ill people rot in jail for more than seven days, doesn’t cut local government the way the Senate budget does and doesn’t steal from the Public Works Trust Fund (clean water and all that) the way that the Senate budget does.  
 
BOR-ing. 
 
With this sort of tedious talk going on, no doubt Westneat had fallen asleep when Representative Hunter turned to Westneat’s favorite Republican topic, higher education.  On this subject, he’s convinced that “the Republicans blew the Democrats out of the water. The GOP,” he tells us, “is proposing to slash tuition but at the same time send tens of millions of dollars to the universities to make up the difference.”  Representative Hunter said the same thing about this that we here at the blog tried to say to Westneat the last time he slobbered over the Republican tuition proposal: It’s not true.  The Republicans say they provide enough money to cover the tuition cut, but the cold, hard numbers in their budget say they do not.  Go read it, Danny.  Better yet, call the university budget offices and see what they say.  The Republican rhetoric on tuition sounds great, but the gap between that rhetoric and the reality of their budget would leave lots of students actually paying more in tuition because it would take them longer to get their degrees.  
 
The Democrats’ press conference picked up a bit when Representative Carlyle (who, we’re sure, if he put his mind to it and maybe took a few singing lessons, could easily land a role in a community theatre production of Oliver) started to talk about the capital gains tax.  For about the thousandth time this year, he pointed out that, by all accounts, Washington has the most regressive and unfair tax system in the country.  A capital gains tax, with the lowest rate and the highest exemptions in the country, would make a modest dent in that unfairness. That alone should be the tax case that Westneat is looking for.  
 
When he says that we’re about to get “a red budget in a blue state,” he implies that this is somehow an anomaly in Washington.   But actually it’s business as usual.  The most regressive tax system in the country didn’t just happen, it is the result of long and consistent work by both Republicans and Democrats.  The illusion of battle between the two parties covers up the fact that they have collaborated to give us exactly the state that the business plutocrats who really run the place want.  We have legal dope, we have gay marriage, we have gun control, and . . . we have a state where we regularly set records for corporate tax breaks and poor people pay four times the percentage of their income in taxes that rich people do.  It’s the perfect Boeing/Microsoft/Starbucks/Amazon/Expedia state.  
 
The problem is, it hasn’t worked.  Our idyllic corporate arrangements are sagging to the breaking point under the weight of the social and economic costs.  Our infrastructure is crumbling, inequality and poverty are increasing, and economic racism has created an almost apartheid-like state.  Things are so bad that finally the Democrats who heretofore could only address the need for more revenue by trying to slap another penny on the regressive sales tax or a nickel on a bottle of water have begun to make a coherent case for progressive structural tax reform.  
 
And that case is coming from people who aren’t exactly the enemies of business.  No one is ever going to mistake Jay Inslee or Ross Hunter or Reuven Carlyle for Kshama Sawant.  
 
Let’s just hope that Danny Westneat is wrong and they’re not going to cave on their proposal for a capital gains tax.   

PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED

Judging just by the tale of the tape, Representative Ross Hunter and Senator Andy Hill look a lot alike. Both are dashingly handsome white guys who went to Ivy League schools.  Both made enough money at Microsoft to retire as gentleman legislators. And both write budgets for the state.  One is a Democrat and the other’s a Republican, but they both hail from districts where candidates and voters regularly cross and blur those lines.   

a_plus_o2Yet all these similarities fade into an irrelevant background when we focus on the clarifying foreground of the budgets they have written. Then the starkest and perhaps most important difference between Representative Hunter and Senator Hill becomes clear.  

One believes in public infrastructure and the other one doesn’t.  

The budget proposal authored by Senator Hill does everything that Representative Hunter says it does: relies on one-time transfers and pipe dreams of marijuana money, makes cuts to local government and social services and more cuts masquerading as “efficiencies,” violates collective bargaining law and rubs more salt in the wounds of teachers and public employees, and makes the most regressive tax system in the country even more regressive with a bunch of new tax breaks.  

The fig leaf that Senator Hill and other Republicans have tried to put on their otherwise naked attempt to shrink public infrastructure is their plan to reduce tuition at our state’s colleges and universities. As we’ve mentioned before here at the blog, tuition has become a big time campaign issue and since the budgets from Governor Inslee and the Democratic House both freeze tuition, Senator Hill’s and his colleagues’ dreams of 2016 drive them to propose a 25% tuition reduction.  

This proposal has given Senator Hill and his colleagues exactly what they wanted: a lot of slobbering media buzz—even blog hero and usually trenchant columnist Danny Westneat has been fooled into thinking that the Republicans are trying to put the public back in public higher education.   

In a theoretical world where Washington state revenues were keeping up with the state’s economic growth, reducing tuition would be a great idea. In the world created by Senator Hill’s budget proposal, it’s simply a campaign headline covering up another way to starve public infrastructure. 

Senator Hill and his colleagues have talked a lot about how they intend to “make the institutions whole” after the lost tuition revenue. But their budget proposal falls millions of dollars short of doing that and would require the universities to make cuts either to financial aid or other programs.  And all of the money they do add comes at the expense of other public infrastructure—cuts to the State Need Grant that would leave 33,000 eligible students still unable to attend college, cuts to the capital budget, cuts to state employee health care, and cuts to Temporary Aid to Needy Families.

But even if the Senate budget proposal did fully backfill the tuition cut, that would only bring our colleges and universities back to where they are now—49th in the country in total per student funding.  The Senate budget and its authors are content to let Washington’s public higher education limp along in the sub-basement into the foreseeable future. Students would pay a little less, but they would get a lot less—fewer classes, bigger classes, longer time to degree, less qualified professors, and generally crappier degrees. The long-term costs would far outweigh the short-term tuition relief.  

When we get past the headlines and slogans, what the Senate budget gives us is unsustainability, a lot more public pain, and a higher education system that would, at best, remain at the bottom of the national heap.  

Representative Hunter and Senator Hill have offered the state a very distinct choice. As we consider it, we should be careful not to mistake it for a choice about priorities or education. The negotiation taking place in Olympia right now is between one guy who believes in public infrastructure and another guy who doesn’t.