Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Responsibility goes unmet in Olympia

Reprinted from the Everett Herald:

john-featured-croppedNov. 4, 2008 seems a long time ago. The Legislature of our state has effectively shredded the two themes of that Election Day — hope and change. Now that they have finished their rendezvous with lobbyists in Olympia, we can survey the damage they have done to our state and our children.

But let’s take a minute to consider the role of government — to provide a foundation of economic security and educational opportunity, to protect and enable citizens to lead productive lives, to realize life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When the private sector falters or collapses, a democratic government should step up to the task and responsibilities for the well-being of the people.

But our Legislature and our governor decided that their responsibilities actually lessened, thanks to the recession. So they took out a meat cleaver and hacked away at health coverage, education, public health and social services. They claimed they had no other choice. And, once the governor announced that she would not support any new taxes, even a tax on the very wealthy, and the Legislature embraced this edict, they didn’t.

In a recession, people need help. They lose their jobs, and then they lose their health care. So the Legislature cut Basic Health Plan coverage more than 40 percent, pulling subsidized health coverage from 40,000 low income people.

Unemployed people need workforce training and education. But state-funded college retraining programs have already run out of money and slots. So the Legislature piled on, eliminating more than 9,000 positions for students in our institutions for higher education.

In this recession, people are relying more on public K-12 education. But the Legislature’s actions will increase class sizes and drive more teachers out of the classroom by making sure that their salaries don’t even keep up with inflation. It is a recipe for teaching at the lowest common denominator. Not exactly a world-class education system.

People stuck with stagnating wages, or worse yet, without jobs, still want their kids to be able to go to college. The money they put away in tuition savings accounts has been halved in the financial meltdown. So the Legislature put higher education one more rung away from middle class families, raising tuition at the University of Washington by close to $1,000 a year for the next two years.

Two years ago the Legislature passed a law to enable parents of newborns to take five weeks from work to care for these infants and get $250 a week to help them get by. It was supposed to go into effect in October of this year. This year, instead of funding this, the Legislature dismissed family leave until 2012. In hard times, having children has just gotten harder.

People need retirement security, especially when their hard earned savings in 401(k) accounts have been lost in the billion dollar poker games that the banks and insurance and mortgage companies played. But the Legislature couldn’t even get a law passed to make it easier for small businesses and workers to save for retirement. It was bottled up by lobbyists for the same financial industry that got us into the mess we have now.

Now we see swine flu flying into our state. It is time for public health to go into action to protect people from this pandemic. That may be a little hard to do, because the Legislature cut public health funding by almost $100 million. Think of the calculations that have been made implicitly by our state lawmakers: they save millionaires from a percent tax on their income, while not having the resources to protect millions of Washington citizens from the deadly pandemic making its way into our state.

The Legislature may have finished its regular session last Sunday night. But they have a lot more work to do. For starters, they should come back into session, pass a tax on soda and candy and gum, all products that are bad for us. That would raise $79 million. Add on a tax on bottled water, which is now recognized as environmentally destructive, for another $350 million. And then put this money to work to fully fund basic health coverage and protect us from the swine flu. That would be getting our priorities of government right, for once.

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