As the Legislature continues to plod through the second special session, the question of whether to raise taxes has sharply divided lawmakers.
But policymakers should trim wasteful spending before they go looking for additional revenue.
The Labor Education and Research Center at South Seattle College would be a good place to start.
Created in 1987, LERC claims to “provide workforce education.” But a Freedom Foundation public records investigation found that LERC operates as a taxpayer-funded extension of the Washington State Labor Council.
Meeting minutes from LERC’s advisory committee quote WSLC’s secretary-treasurer describing LERC as, “a key part of the WSLC’s agenda and forthcoming strategic plans.” In email correspondence, LERC’s director indicated her willingness to “take on strategic research projects for the WSLC.”
One such project involved developing messaging and training curriculum for the WSLC to use to fight adoption of a right-to-work law in Washington, which would prohibit unions from having employees fired for refusing to pay union dues. LERC staff then taught workshops around the state training unions in how to campaign against right-to-work.
While LERC’s right-to-work project pushed the boundaries of appropriateness and legality, in other cases, LERC crossed the line entirely.
LERC is currently under investigation by the Executive Ethics Board for using public resources for politics after it bused protestors to a rally in SeaTac to support the $15 minimum wage ballot initiative in 2013.
Other records indicate that LERC staff regularly lobbied state lawmakers for increased funding without reporting their activity to the state Public Disclosure Commission. As a result, LERC also is under investigation by the PDC.
LERC has drawn scrutiny before. In 2010, LERC lost half of its state funding and left The Evergreen State College after an Evergreen audit found the group engaged in ethically questionable activity. LERC now receives about $160,000 annually from the state treasury.
While attempts to boost LERC’s funding have failed in recent years, Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2015-17 budget proposed tripling LERC’s annual funding to $500,000, and the House incorporated the increase into its operating budget.
On the House floor, Rep. Matt Manweller (R-Ellensburg) proposed an amendment to eliminate LERC’s funding, asking his colleagues, “Can you ask the taxpayer … for additional taxes when we’re still funding things like this?” Democrats narrowly defeated Manweller’s amendment on a party-line vote. By contrast, the Senate’s proposed budget does not provide any continued taxpayer funding for LERC.
LERC’s funding may not seem like much in light of the multibillion dollar state budget. But $500,000 a year goes far in politics. Besides, how many other state appropriations are similarly unjustifiable?
Until policymakers stop giving away tax dollars to their political allies and weed out inappropriate expenditures like LERC, they have no business asking the public to shoulder a heavier tax burden.