Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Recipe for economic rescue

This long election season is finally over — even if vote counting isn’t. Now we can stop listening to candidates’ promises and start prioritizing what we really need from Olympia and the other Washington.

I’m writing this before Election Day so don’t know for sure the outcomes. But that’s okay. What we should be asking for doesn’t change — just our chances of getting it.

The pressing issue of the economy can only be dealt with at the federal level. Let’s hope for a complete turnaround from Bush’s disastrous policies. His response to every situation was tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation of business, privatization and defunding of public services, and undermining safety nets. The results? Typical families have less income relative to inflation and fewer benefits than they had at the end of the 1990s, inequality is at its most extreme since the 1920s, the federal deficit and corporate profits have ballooned, and the world economy is teetering on the brink.

Here’s what the next President and Congress should do.

First, two items: repeal the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and end the Iraq War so we can stop borrowing money from China. Then, send new one-time stimulus checks to working families and two-year grants to struggling state and local governments to shore up spending for human services and education.

Fourth, launch an aggressive investment program rebuilding the nation’s bridges, speeding up public transit expansions, and retrofitting schools and public buildings for energy efficiency. Fifth, use a combination of grants, tax credits, and regulation to push American consumers and businesses to adopt green technology and transform energy consumption. These measures will create good jobs now and the infrastructure for a sustainable 21st-century economy.

Finally, the federal government should bring the U.S. up to global standards in paid leave and access to health care. This will free individuals to pursue their dreams and make American companies more productive and competitive internationally.

At the state level, the priorities are to get the governor and legislature to raise more revenue and avoid draconian cuts to vital services. The state budget will be the biggest thing on everyone’s mind in Olympia come January. The recession and housing slump mean the state is collecting less tax revenue while inflation has spiked, and both population and demand for human services are growing. For the new two-year budget that will begin in July 2009, the gap between projected revenues and the funding needed just to maintain programs will likely equal or exceed 10 percent of the current budget.

The state now spends 40 percent of the budget on K-12 education, 11 percent on higher education, and 37 percent on human services — with a little more than 10 percent left over for everything else. It’s almost certain that programs we care about are going to get cut. But they don’t have to be decimated.

Olympia is going to be filled with highly paid lobbyists insisting that the only way to get Washington’s economy moving and prevent all our jobs from going to Idaho, Alabama, and India is to give more and bigger tax breaks to the businesses they represent. But the current economic crisis is due to the actions of the Bush administration, not state taxes — messed up as they are. In fact, Washington’s economy is in much better shape than most states’ right now.

Instead of cutting taxes for those with the best lobbyists, the legislature should raise taxes on those who can best afford them. Because Washington is one of the few states without an income tax, our wealthy residents pay far less in taxes than they would in almost any other state, while our lower-income residents pay more. Not only is that unfair, it means we don’t have enough public funds to upgrade education and other critical services.

A tax of 3 percent on income over $200,000 and 5 percent over $1 million would affect only 4 percent of the households in our state and raise $2.6 billion over the 2009-11 budget. That’s not as much as the deficit is likely to be, but it’s close enough that we won’t have to spend all our time fighting over crumbs and can take some steps forward.

Critical issues where we could make progress this year include moving toward a high-quality early learning system so that every child enters kindergarten ready to learn; funding and expanding the family leave insurance program so that a new baby or serious illness doesn’t put working families into financial crisis; adding to the housing trust fund, so that we come closer to permanently ending homelessness; and considering state solutions to lower medical costs and expand coverage.

We’re facing tough times as a state and as a nation, but if we succeed in adopting these policies and investments we can come out of this recession on the road to a future where liberty and justice for all are not just words, but actually achievable.

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