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.
Yet 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.