Before the campaign season fades and the governing noise of the 2015 Legislature begins, it’s valuable to use this brief window of time to reflect on the flow of the political year.
In public life one quickly realizes that there is an inside game to government and an outside game. In the inside game, there are rules of engagement, codes of behavior and expectations. A central challenge and decision facing most legislators is whether you have the disposition and orientation to play the inside game well enough to deliver for your constituents, community and state without losing a sense of self. Or whether you will find yourself at odds with the general way of getting thing done and, most likely, discover a lack of success at passing substantial legislation. There is no one pathway but playing only the inside game, or only the outside game, seems to rarely work.
One of the central tenants of the inside game is to pay close attention to the intangible, insider-driven flow of the political year.
The Legislature meets for 60 days sessions in even numbered years and for 105 days in odd numbered years. One major reason is that legislators want to head home quickly by mid March during election years, and leave the complexity of budgets for the marathon 105 day sessions during non election years.
Going into an election year, there are many incumbents running for reelection as well as many open seats. Most of the 49 legislative district seats are, as in Congress, relatively ‘safe’ for one side or another and only a handful are truly ‘swing seats’ that could go either way depending candidates, turnout and campaign strength.
First time candidates of both parties begin to engage in a dance of political intimacy for voter support and campaign dollars. It begins in earnest by April, May or June of each election year when candidates start answering requests from interest groups to fill out dozens and dozens of questionnaires that attempt to assess their views on the organizations’ priority issues. The Seattle Times editorial board picked up the cause of asking candidates to make their special interest questionnairs publicly available for all to see. I assume everything I say and write while in public office is public, so it certainly doesn’t bother me, but there are many who disagree.
For those endorsed by an interest group, the fundraising success begins to increase. After you have finished with friends and family, the calls begin to lobbyists, advocates, donors and coordinating fundraising from among like-minded supporters.
In the inside game, lobbyists–business, labor, environmental, social services, health care, civil rights and much more–are extremely influential in the determination of who will be endorsed by whom. A candidate meets with lobbyists over coffee and auditions their story, pitch, public policy knowledge and political acumen. Lobbyists look for clues to who will win a race, such as whether a candidate has lost weight or sports a tan–signaling many hours spent doorbelling in the summer sun. Campaign contributions are often given in person over coffee, so the lobbyist can strengthen the relationship with the candidate further. Public Disclosure Reports track money raised, which is scrutinized by insiders. Who gave how much to whom?
Business oriented lobbyists will select the more ‘pro business’ candidate in a race and campaign dollars will follow if it is a priority race in a priority district. Labor-friendly legislators will focus on labor endorsements and resources. It quickly becomes clear who is on what side of most issues. Newspaper endorsements, Municipal League ratings, hard work and other factors will come into play as the primary comes and goes and the political establishment reassesses who is expected to win in November.
After the long campaign season comes victory or defeat.
This year the obscene amount of money spent by insiders and outsiders resulted in virtually the lowest turnout in decades, a GOP sweep by those who did bother to vote, and a question of how divided government will work on a board level in our state.
Still, this year as after every election day, victors have about two months to prepare for the legislative session. During that time dozens of additional meetings over coffee will occur with those same lobbyists who weeks before handed over a campaign contribution in the same coffee shop, to present the agenda for the next legislative session on behalf of a client or interest group or simply to strengthen the relationship further. Legislator-elect members are, of course, grateful for the support received. Often interest groups who backed the losing candidate will also seek meetings to build a new relationship. Sometimes they, too, have a change of heart with the newly elected candidate and make substantial campaign contributions after the election to help pay off any campaign debt the victor may still have. Those who lost often struggle to pay off campaign debts. Meanwhile, seasoned incumbents are busy at work drafting bills in preparation for the session and meeting with interest groups with proposals in hand.
In politics as in life, it’s about relationships and this time is important to strengthening ties in preparation for the difficult policy work ahead.
The legislative session begins the second week of January. Since it’s always an odd-numbered year following election season, lobbyists, activists, staff and legislators prepare for a 105-day-session at best.
Within days of the new session and throughout the session, as new legislators learn how to sign and introduce legislation, lobbyists often circulate legislation for support, asking legislators to assist with their priority bills. As the session continues, tensions inevitable rise as controversial votes inch forward and decision time looms. Vote counts of who stands where on important bills–formal and informal–occur as the dance of the legislative process flows through the session. Those legislators who remained quiet or sent mixed signals often finally need to take a stand.
Major and minor bills pass through House or Senate committees, floor votes and on to the governor for signature, or they die somewhere along the process. The overlay of politics encircles it all.
Relationships grow, fray and mend, as legislators, staff, lobbyists, activists learn how each other dances. The uncomfortable side is that the dance changes depending upon whether it is campaign season, interim policy season, or the legislative session.
After the legislative session comes to an end, and everyone rests briefly, the lobbyists and interest groups begin their “legislative session report” of the year. A ‘scorecard’ is developed for organizations from business and labor to social services and more. Virtually every major group develops a scorecard of how legislators voted on the issues important to that group. Most Republicans get strong scores on most business group scorecards, and most Democrats get respectable scores on labor-oriented scorecards. There are exceptions, of course, but fewer than might be expected.
In the interim between the long legislative session and the next year, committees work hard to develop new agendas, often in partnership with those same interest groups. Sometimes the agenda is set from the inside and sometimes from the outside.
The inside game is, by its very nature, interested in the status quo and preserving the institutional grip of current interests. It is often the outside game–from initiative pressure from stakeholders to media, normal public pressure and particularly motivated interest groups–that pushes for change.
As long as we may serve in our part time citizen legislature our job as legislators is, in my view, to come to work with the urgency of citizen activists and oversee the people’s interests and not become reticent to speak out, engage, challenge and push for the public good. Advocates and interest groups are good people doing their jobs, but the more they are allowed to set the political and financial agenda the more the inside calendar ultimately dominates the policy agenda.
The two worlds–inside and outside– exist in a vibrant, interactive, nuanced, evolving tension that is democracy itself. No bill is certain if its genesis is inside pressure or outside pressure, but it does shed a bit more light on the journey.
It is also the reason I feel more strongly than ever that citizen legislators must not defer to the institutional grip of the professional establishment–staff, lobbyists, agency officials and others–but take our role as independent arbiters of policy decisions seriously. Stronger disclosure rules, more transparency and more public linkages between the money flow and legislation is critical to educating the public about the implications of the inside and outside games.
None of this is to remotely suggest that bills and agenda items from insiders are inherently bad and that outside agenda items are inherently good or the other way around. But it is not unimportant to look for the invisible fingerprints on a bill and ask the question, “Where did this bill come from? Really.”
Your partner in service,
In my six years of service in Olympia there is one important piece of legislation that I have actively supported that has yet to be even introduced. That bill’s time has come. I am announcing plans to introduce comprehensive legislation in 2015 to require a one year “cooling off period” for senior appointed executives, legislators, statewide elected officials and others before they can become paid lobbyists following their official government service.
Northwest Public Radio’s multiple stories about campaign finances–lobbyist roles in directing campaign money, party caucus funds and more–remind us of the direct interplay between campaign funding and governing interests.
A cooling off period is a vital element because it allows time for officials still in government to reflect more studiously on the implications of assisting former colleagues on behalf of clients. It makes them less uncomfortable to turn down a request from a former colleague that might be inappropriate. It introduces prudence and cautious reserve to help a former colleague following the reflection of time and space. And, for the government official turned lobbyist, it reminds them of the weight of their actions and the use of direct access and relationship capital.
The federal government currently requires key senior staff and legislators to wait a full year before they can become paid lobbyists. There are still a number of loopholes that allow them to privately provide advice and counsel without direct lobbying that we should be sure to better understand and potentially close. At least 32 states have some version of this bill, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many focus on the ‘revolving door‘ but at the state level there is usually only a one way exit and opportunity–from government to industry.
It is time for Washington to institute a similar law.
With years of experience of the Washington, D.C. and other state histories, hopefully we can adopt a thoughtful approach to ensure that former officials are not merely hands-off advisers in name only and are, in fact, avoiding meaningful advocacy from paid clients whom they may have regulated or overseen in their official government capacity only days, weeks or months before. Disclosure alone is insufficient. There must be a stronger wall between a person’s time in government and the opportunity to leverage that role for private gain.
The New York Times expose of relationships between the former and current attorney generals and staff is simply the latest example, although the issue has surfaced numerous times in the past and I had the bill drafted prior to the story. While I do not question the intent or motives of those involved in this particular story, there is clearly a structural problem that requires rectification by the Legislature. The personal relationships and direct access exhibited in the article’s phone and email communications between former and current staff in discussing client interests can not help but suggest the need for more distance. Still, I was genuinely pleased and impressed with Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s immediate reaction to the article touch on this idea and I look forward to working with him on this issue.
There are many good, decent and honorable lobbyists with whom we work in Olympia who previously served as senior officials in government. But it is highly damaging that some concluded their government work on a Friday and started work as a private lobbyist for clients on Monday. It’s far too close to comfort and contributes to a perception of inappropriate relationships, access and behavior.
Sometimes perception is reality. To maintain public trust, we cannot allow senior government officials to immediately leverage the access of their positions for private gain as paid professional lobbyists on issues that they previously regulated or addressed. A cooling off period allows for a more thoughtful, responsible distance between public sector and private work and that, in turn, instills greater confidence by the public.
Your partner in service,
My predisposition toward supporting the University of Washington as an intimate part of Seattle’s soul is no secret. As one would expect my fierce bias toward my own Seattle district is, of course, above reproach and fully justified by any standard. The economic, social and political relationships between the world renowned institution of higher education and the City of Seattle testify to both our past and our future. At a policy level I also love the physical presence of place, time, smart growth, intelligent density and urban communities that is empowered by well-designed public space.
The combination of the two is a beautiful friendship. It would be a stretch to think of a more meaningful, constructive and appropriate use of the now-empty but stunningly world-class Amgen R&D facility– at the heart of the maritime gateway to Seattle in Interbay– than to make it a part of the University of Washington family.
As Amgen prepares to leave Seattle, we have the opportunity to reclaim a public space with such a voracious appetite for the common good that it’s exciting to envision. It is, simply, an amazing research facility, beautiful building and well-positioned institution. The match with the University of Washington could not be more powerful for generations to come, and would provide benefits across the board to the public.
The development of South Lake Union, lower Queen Anne, Belltown and other neighborhood resources inspire us to believe in the possibilities of smart growth and the Metropolitan Revolution. UW Medical Center, Gates Foundation, Pacific Science Center, commercialization efforts, global health, biotechnology and biomedical facilities and other public and private sector initiatives together suggest we should ensure that the University of Washington as an umbrella institution and framework owns the facility for the greater good. It is a natural fit.
This is a once-in-100-year opportunity. It is too important to the next generation of our community not to connect the various silos of our economy, society and region together in a responsible fashion. The University of Washington could, as a public institution, coordinate the opportunities for 21st Century research and development (you should see the quality of the labs) for educational and commercial partners throughout the state. And the linkage with other aspects of the waterfront work as well. The grain elevator next door, for example, is not a quaint relic but a hard-working delivery system of agricultural products from Central and Eastern Washington to the Port of Seattle to be sent to Asian markets.
Research and development is part of our city’s DNA. This R&D facility, while unfortunately ending as an Amgen presence, can continue into the next generation and play a powerful role in unleashing the city’s future.
The long history of the University of Washington metropolitan tract may cause some to question the broader financial issues of the UW’s role in city property, but the value proposition itself of this historic opportunity should not be discounted. Perhaps a new look at the broader relationship of property across the city can accompany this initiative.
I call on the leadership and board of trustees of the University of Washington to seize this extraordinary opportunity and purchase the facility within its existing, long-term capital planning for the UW Medical Center and other schools and programs within the institution.
Let’s remember that Immunex was a Seattle-based research and development firm with a wild west scientific culture of innovation that attracted the best of the best from around the world. It represented the best of inquiry and entrepreneurialism. It received FDA approval for its breakthrough autoimmune disease drug Enbrel in 1998. That product–which is the reason Amgen acquired Immunex–is now the world’s third-best selling drug in 2014 with $8 billion worldwide sales, according to Thomson Reuters. It has been a revenue work horse for Amgen and it was discovered in Seattle labs by Seattle researchers who sent their children to Seattle schools.
Now, let us call on Amgen as one of our country’s most respected firms that continues to realize billions in revenues from the Immunex-related acquisition–to acknowledge the role that public taxes of $47 million from Washington taxpayers played in supporting the company, and in turn to sell the property at a reasonable price to the publicly-owned University of Washington with some authentic and moral acknowledgement of that generous tax benefit. The employees of Immunex built an amazing company and the promises by Amgen to grow employment following the acquisition did not materialize. On some level that we all acknowledge, this is a reality of commercial life. But the tax benefits provided by Washington citizens did materialize, they were delivered on time, the social contract was signed and the company received $47 million in direct public subsidy from state and city taxpayers. Another hard lesson learned for public officials.
I call on Amgen to acknowledge that selling this facility at a modest and respectable price to our state’s premier institution of higher education–where R&D comes alive in the public sector, researchers are discovered, physicians and scientists develop skills, life-changing new products such as their own Enbrel are created–is the spirit of what the company is supposed to be about.
We are seeing the broader linkage between Seattle’s industrial and maritime waterfront, commercial sector, export facilities, tourism and smart growth and density. Our waterfront is alive, changing and growing. Let’s replace one of the world’s leading commercial research companies in this thrilling location with one of the top public institutions of higher education in the world.
Your partner in service,
Under Obamacare, the fundamental transformation of health care in America is underway, with 1.3 million more people in Washington state alone now able to secure new health care coverage. Of those, nearly 150,000 people–the vast majority low-income families who otherwise might fill expensive emergency rooms–have enrolled in the Washington State Health Exchange, our state’s health care infrastructure established by the landmark federal, state and private sector partnership. The rollout here has been more efficient and effective than in most other states. While there are many gaps in the system–namely the lack of sufficient structure to reduce the overall cost of care–it is a meaningful step toward the idea that access to health care is a moral right in a just and civilized society. While extraordinary challenges remain, we can have better health outcomes, lower costs and more humane policies by continuing down this path.
As we work through the mechanics in order to ensure the public and taxpayers are well served, those of us in the Legislature who supported Obamacare as a step toward broad systems reform have an important public obligation to ensure the implementation goes well.
The problem, and the uncomfortable trend I see going into a new budget season, is that the hybrid model of a joint public and private sector operational structure risks socializing the broader cost and privatizing the profit. At a time when state agencies are being asked to model and potentially cut 15% from their budgets, the Washington Health Benefits Exchange is poised to ask the legislature to lift the cap on their budget to an astonishing $147 Million over the next biennium. That’s almost twice the capped amount the legislature authorized in the last budget cycle. Among the largest pieces of the pie? Substantial new investments in technology.
Given my active focus on the inefficiencies in our state’s technology systems, I have been particularly interested in the way we use technology to better deliver health care, more effectively service clients and protect taxpayers. The progress is troubling at best. When state and federal resources are combined, it appears on the surface that the Exchange is spending more than $60 million a biennium on IT systems. But since the Exchange isn’t a direct public agency in a traditional sense, it’s difficult to have sufficient strategic or enterprise level oversight, purchasing or accountability at the legislative level. So while the state created an Office of Chief Information Officer to take a strategic view of IT purchasing and management, we systematically cave to industry sectors and special interest pressure to carve out major areas for oversight including health care and public safety. The result is, of course, one more silo within state government.
At the peak of open enrollment this past winter, the exchange call center was only answering around 15% of the calls in a timely fashion, according to materials presented. Throughout the spring and summer, about 1 in 5 Exchange enrollees faced maddening invoice errors that have resulted in consumers getting marked as unpaid and uninsured, though that number is down to just above 1 in 10, a measurable improvement but hardly a dramatic success. A 10% failure rate is hardly worth celebrating by public or private sector standards especially when it means real people living real lives potentially being turned away from life-impacting health care. And now, it appears, 40% of the lowest income folks on state disability benefits (that translates into about 6,000 people), who should been passively renewed to keep their coverage were apparently dropped due to IT systems not being able to effectively communicate. This after tens of millions of state and federal tax dollars being spent on new, modified and redesigned systems from top name vendors. It’s not a blanket condemnation but rather an acknowledgement that gaping holes in performance continue to trouble the technology systems despite the improvements since the rushed rollout by the federal government.
Families and individuals who are directly affected have spoken up (made a lot of constituent and media calls!), carriers and consumer advocates are calling for immediate, actionable solutions.
Of course a transformation of health care is a marathon not a sprint, and each state faces different hurdles in bringing the benefits of Obamacare to the public, and good people doing good work are making progress. And each month, quarter and year the Exchange is improving its service delivery. But it’s not coming on the cheap. Great institutions, companies and governments–whether public or private, profit or not-for-profit–must have the courage to publicly and privately demand excellence in service and price and hold themselves accountable.
Too often technology is seen as a black hole where only technical experts are allowed to question, prod and push for better results. I don’t buy it for a New York minute.
We are the home of technology, innovation and entrepreneurialism but too often our performance in government service delivery and the use of technology fails to take advantage of all that we have to offer as a state. Sate government is simply not a sophisticated technology customer. We depend upon proprietary vendors too much, we fail to adequately invest in our own technology professionals through adequate pay and professional development, and we frequently fail to deploy enterprise-wide strategies from applications to utility services.
I passionately support increasing access to quality health care. I believe the Affordable Care Act is a responsible step toward improving millions of lives across the nation, and I believe we have a strong executive team and approach here in Washington. But I don’t support tens of millions more for the Exchange’s technology systems in light of the lack of meaningful or independent technology oversight from anyone other than the agency itself. Not only is it vital to hold the line on additional technology spending, it’s likely time to reconsider the governance structure of the Health Exchange itself as a quasi-independent entity.
We are so much more than what we’ve become.
Your partner in service,
In the frenzy of global challenges and big public issues we sometimes loose the strength to embrace stillness. In times of difficulty, we turn inward to family and friends for quiet support and non judgmental love. During some of our most difficult times, many of us turn to art purely for the sake of art, the value of pensive reflection, the joy of curiosity.
Art inspires, embraces, challenges and breathes soul into life. Sometimes it just lifts us up. Sometimes it’s eloquence inspires and sometimes it disappoints, but it usually makes us think and engage.
Recently Betty Winfield, a constituent in our district, approached me at a Magnolia community meeting and in writing with a simple idea so gentle, subtle and soothingly delicious that I had to chuckle at its elegance: Let’s artistically paint the iconic grain elevator and silos along the Seattle waterfront at Pier 86.
She wrote, “Pier 86 is the noteworthy sea entrance to Seattle, Elliott Bay. The silos are prominent for cruise ships, tour boats, the Clipper and ferries as well as any sea traffic after they round the Magnolia Bluffs. This site could be our Statue of Liberty, our Eiffel Tower, our welcome to the region’s amazing scenery. The structures there could be a destination stop as much as the Fremont Troll and the Big Wheel. Elsewhere, silos have been painted, had vinyl wraps, had moving visual images and have greatly been improved the sites, even as a tourist draw (San Francisco Pier 92).
King 5 picked up the idea here.
I absolutely love the idea on every level, and I’m all in to help.
The next time you’re chatting with an official from the Port of Seattle and City of Seattle, tell them that art outlives politics and to get on board with Betty’s idea.
Your partner in service,
Recently I had a chat with a senior official in state government who made a rather surprising comment about the potential of marijuana revenue as a major contribution toward solving our budget challenges. I thought the remark was a casual, even flippant comment until I realized this person was actually rather serious. This person was simply unaware of the amount of taxes generated by marijuana. I realized it would be helpful to remind those inside and outside of government of the context and numbers associated with marijuana revenue to keep it all in perspective.
For the first time, the state’s Economic and Revenue Forecast has built in assumptions around marijuana revenue for the current biennium (which ends July 1, 2015) and the next biennium for the 2015-2017 time frame. The current revenue assumptions from the sale of licensed cannabis products are now expected to be $6.9 million in the current biennium and $60.1 million in the 2015-2017 biennium, according to the counsel. As recently as June, the state was projecting $0 in the current biennium and $22.9 million for the next two-year period.
The Seattle Times’ headlines imply huge dollars will flow, but the details suggest a more modest approach. The 2017-2019 projections, $119 million for the General Fund and $285 million for non General Fund dedicated usage, are merely projections and should not be booked, tagged or prematurely spent.
The revenues are not, however, free for the taking despite multiple claims on the cash. The Initiative, I-502, has a few things to say about the use of proceeds that played a role in the campaign, something that budget writers and advocates alike need to keep in mind.
Here is the division of proceeds for marijuana excise tax revenues, per I-502. An important caveat is that retail sales tax and B&O taxes collected on marijuana sales would be separate and all proceeds from those two sources would go to the General Fund.
The use of proceeds are:
50% State Basic Health Plan Trust (now to be utilized for health care-related services)
18.7% General Fund – State
15% DSHS – Substance Abuse Programs
10% DOH – Marijuana Education & Public Health Program
5% – Health Care Authority – Community Health Centers Contract
0.6% University of Washington – unspecified
0.4% Washington State University – short & long-term affect research
0.3% Building Bridges Program grants
It’s still all a small sum in the aggregate picture of a $36 billion state budget, and is hardly a major new source of revenue to begin to support the state’s paramount duty of public education and other services until we know much, much more. More importantly, we are only at the beginning of assessing the implications of legalization and need to better understand the policy issues associated with youth, drug treatment services and other public and private sector costs and considerations. Simply, it would be irresponsible to begin siphoning off revenues to programs and services unrelated to the initiative and the public’s expectations. Moreover, local governments are clamoring for a share of state government’s portion, a debate that will surface again in Olympia in 2015, and that could reduce further the resources if done for expediency and political considerations rather than evidence-based policy reasons.
The medical marijuana market, which remains totally unregulated, continues to be an important factor impacting I-502 revenues. It remains to be seen how the state revenue will unfold given the strong medical interests that have gained market strength and that consider medical and recreational marijuana as two almost unrelated markets rather than one broad market.
The legalization of recreational marijuana usage for adults is a historic policy experiment with global market implications that warrants public support but cautious government implementation. In order to ensure the responsible rollout of the product in a fashion aligned with the will of the people, state government has a public responsibility to spend the money as the public intended in a slow, cautious and measured way. The dollars are few but the symbolism and policy implications are large.
One day the revenues from the legalization from marijuana may exceed expectations and serve broader public purposes. Other states and nations are certainly watching our little corner of the nation for clues. For now, we here in Washington–and other states–should proceed with thoughtful caution and ensure that the first dollars are protected from political raiding and are used strictly for marijuana-related costs, drug impacted policies and health care services.
Your partner in service,
The state Supreme Court’s ruling holding the state in contempt for making insufficient progress toward the constitutional directive to adequately fund public education is historic. That ruling is a reflection of more than our Legislature’s political will. It is a reflection of whether we have the courage as a representative institution of government to tackle the most difficult, structural policy issues facing our state together and put conscience and constituents above politics.
In the context of our state’s political subculture, it is hard and difficult work. In the context of world affairs, people display great moral courage everyday. And we can, too.
The profound challenge facing the 2015 Legislature is to force into the open an elevated dialogue, study and discourse about education, taxes and budgets that goes beyond simplistic rhetoric of tax increases or draconian budget cuts. It is to resist political elbows against traditional adversaries and appeal to our higher nature as colleagues, friends and loyal policy opponents.
The Court reminds us that we are left with little choice but to work together across political philosophies and outside of traditional frameworks. As Democrats and Republicans, urban and rural, we are left with few options other than to exhibit the type of historic leadership as part-time citizen legislators that rarely occurs, is rarely demanded by a state and is thus rarely seen.
A grand education and funding bargain—recognizing a balance of evidence-based outcomes for education and sufficient resources to accomplish the job– is indeed possible. Today, Washington is in the bottom third of states in the level of education funding at approximately $9,800 per pupil. Funding McCleary at $1,800 more per pupil would bring the state to slightly under ‘average’ at approximately $11,600. (A good description of the legislation underlying the McCleary case is presented by Rep. Ross Hunter here).
I was, therefore, particularly disappointed in the Washington Policy Center’s immediate response to the Court’s ruling. The right-learning think tank, which I frequently utilize along with left-leaning policy think tanks for research support, instantly slid into a frenzied, almost frothy attack on ‘billions in tax increases‘ without context, depth or acknowledgement of the systemic and legal issues facing our state.
Just as we need bold leadership from legislators to meet this unprecedented challenge, we need stakeholders, advocates and interest groups to raise their game as well.
A more dignified and mature approach outside of party or ideology is represented by the measured, thoughtful response to crisis often exhibited by former Gov. Dan Evans during the years of serious social disequilibrium in which he served as our only three-term governor. The Seattle Times’ editorial review of the historic ruling also showed thoughtful reflection.
We need more funding for education and we must ensure that those dollars achieve meaningful improvements in outcomes for our one million school students. Simultaneously, we must acknowledge that even the best-educated child will struggle to succeed in a crumbling community. We need a “kids and community” budget not one that that pits schools against the wide range of community services and supports needed to enhance quality of life for our seven million residents.
For some Democrats, the challenge will be to move outside of the comfort zone when it comes to spending and how the dollars flow. For some Republicans, the challenge will be to move outside of the comfort zone when it comes to taxes and how the dollars flow. For the media, the challenge will be to take the time and energy to elevate the dialogue to educate the public and not merely appeal to the base instinct of public discourse. For some stakeholders, lobbyists and businesses, the challenge will be to see outside of the suffocating confines of self-interest.
As Justice Charles Johnson said in a comment from the bench during oral arguments, perhaps it is time to examine big ideas such as setting expiration dates for tax preferences, funding public education, and welcoming the Legislature to re-pass any tax incentives it chooses once the ‘paramount duty’ has been met.
This is, in effect, an idea many of us have championed with great resolve. It is not the panacea to reforming our state’s problematic tax code, but it is a step towards greater fairness and simplicity. If ever there was a substantive policy case to be made for hitting the ‘refresh’ button on our broader tax code, the Court has done so now.
We have approximately 650 tax exemptions, preferential rates and credits on the books in Washington. Many work well–either to reduce externalities or unintended consequences of our tax code–and can be easily and justifiable supported, but others are merely special interest carve-outs that would struggle to justify their continued existence if forced to prove their financial return on investment to taxpayers.
Today, the identification of who receives a tax incentive and the financial value of that incentive is public information in only 19 of 650 cases. In a state with a fierce attachment to transparency and public disclose of campaign cash and lobbying activities, doesn’t the public deserve better? How can a person or organization–government, think tank, elected official– make bold and dramatic claims of return on investment efficacy without knowing the truth of who receives how much benefit from tax preferences, or the contextual data of how much taxes are actually paid in such situations?
Preferential tax treatment decisions benefit nonprofits, local governments, hospitals, travel agents, agriculture, timber, technology, aerospace, out-of-state shoppers, oil companies and of course consumers and so many others. The complexity of tax policy calls on us to reexamine established assumptions, not to target any single category, company or group but to more fully and accurately understand the financial implications for our state of those past decisions.
In 2012, then-Rep. Glenn Anderson (R-Fall City) and I introduced sweeping legislation to place a rotating expiration date on nearly all tax preferences, incentives and credits over the course of ten years. The legislation played an important incremental role, I believe, in elevating the dialogue about our state’s addiction to tax incentives and set in a motion the Legislature’s embrace of a more rigorous financial and analytical review by legislators themselves. The bill helped frame a more substantive discussion of tax preferences in newspapers from Walla Walla to Seattle. It led directly to legislation I crafted with Sen. Rodney Tom (D-Medina) of incremental steps of transparency into tax preferences and set expiration dates and accountability measures of performance.
Closing tax preferences and incentives is not a magic or simplistic answer and any policy examination demands compelling data and policy rigor. But it is, if nothing else, at least intellectually honest to open the books for a public dialogue to see with the gift of new eyes the political choices we have made over the past few decades. It is those choices, most often made without public access to vital tax data, which have left us with a tax code riddled with questionable deals and special treatment. In some ways, until the Court’s ruling, the true weight and cost of those decisions–the opportunity cost of the expenditure of dollars for tax preferences rather than education–has not truly been felt by legislators and interest groups.
Now, opening the door to an honest and transparent public discussion about the financial decisions behind our state’s 650 tax exemptions, incentives and preferential benefits is a measured, responsible step forward.
We can carefully, responsibly establish expiration dates for a majority of the existing tax incentives without pretending it is a political assault upon the foundations of our economy or assuming a stealth strategy to categorically or blindly terminate them.
We as legislators have failed to demand the same level of financial, analytical and intellectual rigor for our tax policy decisions that we expect of our budget and spending decisions.
Harry Truman’s personal humility gave him the courageous honesty to give ‘em hell and do what he believed was right for our nation. Perhaps today’s state legislators, in the corner of our nation, have a sense deeper than traditional politics that this is our time for leadership.
Your partner in service,