WHO’S YOUR DADDY?

On a Wednesday, the Washington State House Democrats released their plan to fund education with a capital gains tax. On Thursday, the radio ads denouncing the plan as an assault on Washington families began to appear.  

Screen shot 2015-04-08 at 10.25.56 AM

At the hearing a few days later, the usual suspects lined up as you would expect: the folks from education, social services, and health care testified once again that we need to raise revenue for starved public infrastructure and do something about the most regressive tax system in the country, while the business lobbyists showed up to tell us that a capital gains tax would surely be the end of life as we know it.  

But along with the Olympia regulars, there were also a handful of concerned citizens, people whose day job is not to testify in legislative committees, but who thought the issue was important enough to show up any way. Some were from the Nick Hanauer wing of the rich people’s caucus. They were among the few people well off enough of to actually be affected by a capital gains tax, and they said they would be happy to pay it, recognizing Washington’s desperate need for new revenue and a fairer tax structure. Others were regular people, none of whom would likely feel the bite of a capital gains tax, all of whom denounced the plan as an assault on Washington families, just like the radio ads.  

Noticeably absent were the rich folks who don’t want to pay the capital gains tax.  They’re probably the people paying for the ads. The ads that ominously claimed that the House Democrats have targeted 30,000 Washington families for ruin.  

Here at the blog, we’re fully sick of this and all the other talk about families. If we have to listen to one more piety about how government must live within its current income, like a real family does, or one more distortion about how a capital gains tax will hurt Washington families, we’re gonna puke.

The citizens of Washington are not a family. And if we were, and state legislators were our mommies and daddies, they would probably be in jail, for having failed to provide for their children to go to school, utterly neglecting their mentally ill children, and allowing their really rich children to live rent-free while their poor children paid all the bills.  

And it’s those really rich kids that would pay the capital gains tax. Thirty thousand families sounds like a lot until you remember that Washington has about 3 million families. And the one percent who would pay the tax wouldn’t even pay that much—1250 bucks for every 25 grand they make buying and selling stock.  So if your portfolio made a million dollars one year, you’d have to make do with the $950,000 you’d have left after the tax.  

The capital gains tax would pay for the schools that our parent legislators have neglected so badly they’re about to be thrown in the clink. Only rich people would pay it and they wouldn’t pay that much. And they wouldn’t pack up to leave to avoid it, because the eight other states that don’t have it aren’t the kinds of places that appeal to rich Washingtonians.  A capital gains tax would be a small step toward making the most regressive tax system in the U.S. a little bit fairer.  There’s really nothing bad about it.

That’s probably why the people who oppose it have to buy misleading ads that spew clichés about families to try to convince regular people to go testify against it. 

GLASS HOUSES

You know the real fun is about to start when politicians start blogging about honesty and how the other side doesn’t play by the rules.  

Republican State Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler took to the Senate Republican Caucus blog last week to try to put pressure on the House Democrats as they prepare to release their budget proposal. Sounding like a cross between Ward Cleaver and Batman, Senator Schoesler warns the House to “play by the rules,” and spells out what “we expect from an honest budget proposal.” It seems that the Majority Leader is unwilling to talk about any budget proposal from the House that doesn’t include all the tax bills needed to pay for it. He threatens that such a proposal will “keep us here well past our scheduled adjournment date.”

fp1Senator Schoesler professes to care about rules and honesty, but he certainly doesn’t seem to have much use for consistency. On March 11, Senator Schoesler and all of his senate Republican colleagues (including budget chair Andy Hill, who Senator Schoesler name checks as his partner in demanding “honesty” from the Democrats) voted for SB 5954—a bill that does exactly what Senator Schoesler would forbid Democrats from doing.  

SB 5954 would reduce tuition at our state universities and colleges and promises to ante up the three or four hundred million dollars that would cost the institutions.  But it doesn’t say a word about where that money would come from. Both Senator Schoesler and Senator Hill spoke on the Senate floor to encourage their colleagues to vote for the bill and worry about where the money would come from later. All the speeches about responsibility and making sure the money is there to pay for something came from Democrats.  Senator Barbara Bailey, the Senate Higher Education Committee chair and SB 5954’s prime sponsor, along with Senators Schoesler and Hill, all sounded like New Deal Democrats as they righteously proclaimed that reducing tuition was The Right Thing To Do and were blithely unconcerned about how to pay for it.  

At this point, we might begin to worry that the years of proclaiming about bi-partisan majority coalitions have taken their toll and the Senate Majority Leader has become unable to remember from one day to the next whether he is a Republican or a Democrat. But fear not, gentle reader, it all makes sense as soon as we remember that the 2016 election season has already begun.  

When Senator Schoesler wags his finger at House Democrats about honesty and rules, what he really means is that he wants them to take votes that will allow Republicans in 2016 to say, “my opponent voted to raise your taxes.”  And when he waxes poetic about reducing tuition, what he really means is that he wants 2016 Republican candidates to be able to say, “I voted to lower tuition without raising taxes.” Apparently, this sort of thing works in elections.         

THE TUITION BLUES

You can count on one hand the politicians in Olympia who genuinely care about Washington students having affordable access to high quality public four-year higher education.  But you can’t swing a dead cat in Olympia without hitting a politician who’s pandering to the cheap seats about tuition.  

venn$$$Last week, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill taking tuition authority away from the state universities. Not to be outdone, the Senate passed a bill that would cut tuition.  And the week before that, Governor Inslee toured two state universities, touting his proposed tuition freeze.  

But a funny thing happened to the Governor on the way to his photo ops.  Some students asked him questions about his commitment to the value of their educations.  At Western Washington University and Central Washington University, students expressed appreciation for the Governor’s proposed tuition freeze, but then went on to ask why his budget had not included any significant state reinvestment in their universities.  

This Governor-Student colloquy pretty much sums up the current higher ed political dynamic in Washington.  Six or seven years ago, public four-year higher ed wasn’t on any political radar screen.  Legislators openly admitted that caring about state universities didn’t bring them any votes or any campaign cash.  This is why, even in the days when the state picked up 70% of the tab for college, our universities were still dramatically underfunded compared to other states.  When the last recession came and tuition skyrocketed because state university funding was cut in half, the higher ed community began to organize.  Students, faculty, administrators, regents and trustees, parents, alumni, and even the Seattle Times began to educate the public and the legislature about the social, cultural, and economic importance of healthy state universities.  This organizing paid dividends in 2013, when the legislature made a small reinvestment in higher ed which allowed them to freeze tuition rates. 

This tuition freeze proved very popular with voters, to the point where, in the 2014 election, higher ed became a campaign issue for the first time in anyone’s memory.  The airwaves and mailboxes were filled with promises to not raise tuition.  

So now we’re at the point where politicians have to gauge whether voters are paying as much attention as the students who questioned Governor Inslee.  Everybody who’s up for reelection, everybody with one eye on the governor’s mansion feels like they have to freeze tuition.  “I kept college affordable” has become a must-have campaign slogan.  What ambitious politicians are left to wonder about is just how irresponsible they can be in grabbing that slogan.  

Freezing tuition without significant state reinvestment in higher ed will only leave students paying more for educations that are worth less.  As we’ve pointed out again and again here at the blog, Washington ranks 49th in the country in total per-student funding for public higher ed.  Freezing tuition with no increase in state funding will leave us falling only further into that sub-basement.  Fewer students will have access to college, the classes they need won’t be there, and their time to graduation (and thus their cost) will increase.  And the quality of the education they receive will inevitably erode.  

The students who hassled the governor understand this.  Legislators and rumored gubernatorial candidates have to start asking themselves and their consultants how many voters also understand.  Can they get away with the instant gratification of a no-investment tuition freeze that will ultimately punish students or do they have to actually do the responsible thing and find a couple of hundred million dollars to reinvest in public higher ed?

The Western and Central students may very well be the canaries in the coal mine of public opinion telling politicians that just grandstanding about tuition is no longer enough.