The critics of Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget, which he rolled out in stages over several days this week, have already begun picking apart its minutiae. That’s typical. But this time, the critics are missing Inslee’s important vision for the 2015-2017 biennium and beyond.
This budget isn’t just about numbers. Inslee is proposing something much bigger than how much we should spend to satisfy McCleary, or what transportation projects deserve immediate funding.
The governor is trying to drag the state of Washington into the 21st Century. It’s a new world that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, and a world where a fair tax system minimizes rather than exacerbates income inequality.
This budget acknowledges that the economy has fundamentally changed. The old rules and the old trends don’t apply any more. Since the Great Recession, we’ve had economic growth, but a greater increase in poverty. The demand for government services has never been greater.
Many consecutive years of spending cuts have resulted in severely mentally ill people being inhumanely strapped to beds in emergency room hallways, and low income single parents losing access to affordable childcare. Our roads and bridges have become unsafe, and no longer sufficient to move people to jobs or goods to market.
Because we’ve ignored our constitutional obligation to fully fund basic education -- and the Legislature’s own plan to do so – our educational system has fallen behind the rest of the world. We’re trying to build a first-class economy on a severely underfunded education system. That has forced growing Washington businesses to, as the governor says, “hire other people’s kids.”
And we’re now paying for those deep cuts with lawsuits. Courts have ordered state lawmakers to spend more on education and mental health, to remove culverts that block migrating salmon, and to stop holding mentally ill people for long periods in county jails without competency evaluations and treatment.
The list of inequalities we have created in this state is long, and we will not heal these wounds without diversifying our tax structure.
Washington has the most regressive tax structure in the United States. It’s most unfair to working people. The bottom income earners pay more than their fair share, while the top income earners pay the least.
And, according to recent reports by Standard and Poor, income inequality in sales tax-dependent states pulls the whole economy down, ultimately reducing the state’s ability to provide necessary services.
Expanding Washington’s tax code to include a tax on carbon emissions paid by polluters and capital gains paid by less than 2 percent of people will move us toward a new world economy that works for everyone, not just the most financially fortunate.
Gov. Inslee is facing these realities in his budget because he sees the bigger picture – that the world economy is changing. From a global perspective, Inslee proposals are just one step, but it’s a vital first step in a new direction that could get our state moving towards a more equitable, sustainable future.