Is K-12 education fully funded? Not so fast

In 2009 I voted against an “education reform” bill that, amidst devastating cuts, promised fully-funding K-12 education by 2018. As I asked then, how could we expect future Legislatures to possess the courage of our convictions if even we didn’t possess that courage?

The 2009 bill’s promise was to avoid litigation, now known as the “McCleary case,” over K-12 funding inadequacy. The Washington state Supreme Court saw through the smokescreen and, in August 2015, began imposing a $100,000 daily contempt-of-court fine upon the Legislature for not progressing toward its self-imposed goal.

This year’s never-ending legislative process produced what Gov. Jay Inslee proclaimed “a historic budget that fully funds our schools for the first time in more than 30 years.” Other Democrats echoed his exultations, labeling “Democratic” a budget borne out of a Republican Senate, a claim that ignores nine Senate Democratic no votes, and frothing in a press release that it “adds $7.3 billion to Washington schools.”

Not so fast: Education isn’t fully-funded.

The $7.3 billion figure reportedly fails to subtract billions lost from local property tax revenues. The Legislature has added by subtraction before, as it did in 2013 by shamelessly counting $295.5 million in denied K-12 cost-of-living increases toward a “$1 billion funding increase.” It’s doubtful the high court will be fooled.

 The budget also spreads new funding over four years, when truly meeting McCleary might require $5 billion more just by next year. It relies upon fickle property tax revenue and various gimmicks, like diverting $5.5 million from the litter account. It may also fail to fix a broken mental health system — where federal contempt-of-court fines have exceeded $21.5 million so far this year.

Political triumphalism is inevitable. But Carter McCleary was 7 years old when the McCleary litigation was filed. He graduated from high school last month. My son starts high school this fall. Am I wrong to feel impatient about the state meeting its constitutional “paramount duty”?

I also worry about the budget’s unsustainability. As a House member, I voted against budgets on that basis.

The 2007 budget, for example, was “balanced” by breaking a 1998 pension promise — largely for teachers. The state reacted to the Great Recession by decimating programs and denying state workers’ wage increases for eight years. It was heart-wrenching.

Washington continues to use baling wire and volatile revenue sources for budgets, and we are only ever a volatile president’s actions (perhaps tweets) away from another recession. The Washington state Supreme Court has, rightly, insisted on “dependable revenue sources” for K-12.

You can’t separate a budget from its shaky revenue foundation. So why should the public demand progressive tax reform if even Democrats claim progressive aims were “fully” achieved by regressive means? Settling for less is learned helplessness.

It happened in 2009, when I opposed cuts initially characterized as “cuts that will kill” — in a half-hearted case for new revenue — that rhetorically transformed into “cuts with a conscience.” The next year, Democratic super-majorities mustered courage and finally raised taxes upon … candy. Budget secrecy — culminating this year in voting on a budget no one had read — hardly helps make the tax reform case, either.

The public can handle honesty. While it might not serve the aims of political rhetoric, it would be honest to admit trying hard, as I know many legislators did, but falling short in key respects. The public must, again, hope for that honesty from the state Supreme Court.

Originally published at HeraldNet

The food stamp cuts hit WA State especially hard

*Number of U.S. households with food stamps cut $90/MO under farm bill: 850,000

*Number of those households in WA: 200,000 (23% of national total)

*WA Congressional Democrats supporting cut: 6 of the 8 [all but Adam Smith and Jim McDermott]

*WA Post Editorial: “[T]his legislative grotesquerie gives to the rich and takes from the poor. . . . President Obama can stand up for his declared principles by vetoing it.”

With Boeing, politicians show true colors

With politicians’ heavy thumbs upon the scale of the 777X decision, the Machinists have spoken. Again.

In 1894, railroad magnate George Pullman crushed a strike, declaring that “workers have nothing to do with the amount of wages they shall receive; that is solely the business of the company.” Labor relations are much more genial today. Instead of calling in Pinkerton guards, Boeing simply enlisted pension-holding politicians to importune workers to give up pension rights.

A surreal Everett press conference featured six politicians with government pensions hectoring Machinists, including one, Snohomish County Executive John Lovick, already drawing over $60,000 annually from past State Patrol service. Cashing in his own $44,000 annual congressional pension, Gov. Jay Inslee demanded Machinists vote again.

Crises bring out the Chamberlain or Churchill in the political class. This one brought opportunity for empathy and leadership instead of hypocrisy and cringing servility. Where was the press conference of politicians demanding that Boeing CEO James McNerney, in the spirit of shared sacrifice, relinquish some of a retirement package that exceeds $44.7 million?

With income inequality at historic highs, such a press conference would have sounded the note of populist outrage this occasion demanded. But it would also take the long view, arguing for a less-unequal future. There has seldom been such political courage, making those exhibiting it all the more exceptional. None of the politicians in this episode will, as is true with Theodore Roosevelt (yet again) in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Bully Pulpit,” be subjects of bestselling histories a century hence for courage in standing up to corporate behemoths. Instead they may be vignettes when future historians ponder what killed the middle class dream.

Political expediency demanded kicking workers to the curb so “greedy” Machinists could be blamed in any “Who-Lost-Boeing?” free-for-all — even if the principles of those workers could hardly be greater. I daresay the average Washingtonian would find it irresistible to sacrifice almost anything about the future in exchange for the short-term cash incentive Boeing dangled. Yet the 49 percent of Machinists defying the establishment, and voting “no,” were prescient: Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is among those fearing a crisis where reliance on Social Security replaces disappearing private pensions. As Warren warned recently, “Social Security is rapidly becoming the only lifeline that millions of seniors have to keep their heads above water.” Is this what we want?

The lurching reaction of the political class, and failure to take the long view about what kind of state we want to be, portends trouble on other fronts. For government to subvert a private sector union, even after giving Boeing $8.7 billion in tax breaks, is a bad harbinger for working people under more-direct state control.

For example, although Washington teachers’ salaries have slipped far below even neighboring Oregon’s, should we believe restoration of salary increase-granting Initiative 732 — suspended for six years — will ever occur? While threats emanating from Chicago could prompt a “Boeing session” of a panicked haste so galloping that majority House Democrats did not even have their majority, the Washington Supreme Court’s indictment of the state’s failure to attend to its paramount duty to fund K-12 did not compel fair treatment of teachers in 2013, nor in the proposed 2014 supplemental budget.

Perhaps hard work, whether by Machinists or teachers, warrants only takeaways in this new, anti-middle class era. Where do we, as a state, go from here?

Originally published at HeraldNet

Competing states are raking in our dough

In rejecting Medicaid expansion to serve the uninsured in the poorest, unhealthiest state, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant piously urged eating better and exercising more (in a stranger-than-fiction twist, he then signed a law, pushed by a barbecue chain owner selling sandwiches called “L’il Piggies,” preventing restaurant calorie disclosure).

Bryant has not objected, though, to the federal government paying 73 percent of Mississippi’s Medicaid costs as part of the state’s $2.47 return on each federal tax dollar.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley gave Boeing another $120 million in tax incentives this year while bashing Washington state. She should thank us: Our state’s taxpayers subsidize her wooing Boeing. The federal government pays 70.6 percent of South Carolina’s Medicaid costs — the state gets $1.92 back for every dollar paid in federal taxes.

Our economic competitors are pulling themselves up by our bootstraps. In Washington, the federal government pays only half of Medicaid costs. The federal Medicaid formula is income-based, yet we are among only three states without income-based taxation in the bottom 15 for the federal match.

The other two states in that group are Alaska and Wyoming. We are not like them.

Alaska receives so much oil revenue from the national treasure that it gave every citizen, adult or child, a $900 “dividend” this year. Oil accounts for 90 percent of state revenue, and the state has accumulated a $16.1 billion surplus while actually lowering oil taxes this year.

Wyoming also benefits from the national treasure: Revenue from the mineral severance tax, and income from the Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund, easily dwarfs sales tax revenue.

Not only do we lack an income tax (or oil revenue) but our state’s tax system falls more heavily than any other state’s upon those with the least. Medicaid recipients whose care is underfunded pay the exact same sales tax that a billionaire does.

In negotiating a federal budget deal with anti-government arsonists, Senator Patty Murray was forced to concede a lot of fires. An estimated 94,100 Washingtonians will be denied extended unemployment benefits by the end of 2014. Arbitrary cuts of 2 percent continue for Medicare providers.

Going forward, however, Murray — as Senate Budget Committee chair –is uniquely positioned to argue the equities of Washington receiving a higher federal contribution toward Medicaid costs. Billionaires who opposed the Initiative 1098 high-earners’ tax should support that effort. Contrary to our high-income ranking, we actually trail South Carolina in the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ measure of real unemployment, which includes unemployment as well as marginal attachment to jobs and part-time work for economic reasons. By that measure, we are in the nation’s bottom 12 states at 14.8 percent.

We could use any assistance toward social services costs we can get. Murray and Sen. Maria Cantwell could push to amend the Social Security Act to ensure any state without an income tax (a happy development to Republicans, one imagines) receives a federal Medicaid contribution of no less than 55 percent. I’m sure Gov. Inslee would happily accept this, as opposed to Gov. Haley’s taunts as she smugly rakes in Washington taxpayers’ largesse.

For our state, a greater federal Medicaid match would be enormously helpful to funding long-term care, as well as payments for the hospitals and primary care practitioners essential to helping health care reform succeed.

Originally published at the Everett Herald

Bombing Syria Isn't Warranted, Won't Fix Congress's Partisan Stalemate

I am willing to believe the Obama Administration’s claim that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on Syrians. And anyone who has read about World War I chlorine and mustard gas casualties knows what a horror these weapons are, and understands that even war has its rules.

Yet does crossing this “line” require a U.S. military attack? It is estimated that as many as 110,000 Syrians have been killed in an ongoing civil war, with hundreds killed by the recent gas attack.  Because the Administration deems only the latter warrants our intervention, it would be a bitter irony if as many Syrian civilians died as a result of our intervention’s “collateral damage” as they did in the attack that prompted it.

Secretary of State John Kerry accused Democrats opposed to an attack of a “Munich” attitude. By referring to the Allies’ decision, in 1938, to cede Czechoslovakia to the Naxis, Kerry was equating Syria’s internal conflict with Nazi Germany’s external aggression. Is this to suggest the Nazis could have been pacified by a few days’ bombing? And if the Syrians are the equivalent of the Nazis, should we not declare war and invade?

It seems as likely an attack might worsen the situation.

In attacking, we would go it alone. Yes, some principled allies like Saudi Arabia, where beheadings are legal for “witchcraft” among other crimes, are said to be cheering us on from the sidelines. But Britain, where a progressive parliamentary minority had the temerity to stand up, will not be with us. That will not change soon, even though President Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, is a paid consultant to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative government.

To attack will require Congressional Democrats to carry the day. To exaggerate like Kerry, the record this year of bipartisan voting would make Neville Chamberlain proud.

In January, House Democrats followed the lead of their campaign committee chair, Steve Israel of New York, in repudiating—even before Obama’s second term—the President’s successful 2012 campaign pledge to restore a higher income tax threshold for those earning $250,000 or more. The threshold was instead set at $400,000. Israel had stated, “I would hope that he would not go back to 250.  It’s fair—$250,000 may sound like it’s a lavish income in Louisiana. Not on Long Island.”

(Israel’s efforts did not go unrewarded: J.P. Morgan forgave him $93,000 he owed on his house).  Of Washington state’s Congressional delegation, only Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA, 7) failed to vote the same as far-right Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA, 3.)

Second, there was the so-called “Let Congress Fly Home Faster” bill. There, in a 361-41 April vote, the U.S. House voted to exempt air travel from sequestration, while programs like Medicare and tax credits for small businesses that provide health insurance were being cut. Every member of our congressional delegation voted “yes” with the exception of Representative McDermott and an absent Representative Adam Smith (D-WA, 9). Representative John Dingell of Michigan, the “Dean of the House” as longest-serving member, asked, “Mr. Speaker, is there no one in this chamber who is embarrassed?  Or perhaps the question should be: Is no one in this chamber not embarrassed?”

A chortling House Majority Leader Eric Cantor then sent out a memo to House Republicans quoting a reporter characterizing Democrats’ “complete, utter cave.”

Next was a July House vote to ban runaway electronic snooping by the National Security Agency. By a 217-205 margin, the amendment was defeated. Of our Democratic House members, only Suzan DelBene D-WA,1) and McDermott failed to join 134 Republicans, as Rep. “Doc” Hastings (R-WA,4) increasingly looked like the benchmark for our delegation’s progressivity. This was true even though Washington’s state constitutional guarantee of privacy is not exceeded nationally and is far more protective than the 4th Amendment.

But whatever … No one’s spying on members of Congress.

Now, with various self-imposed catastrophes facing Congress – including ongoing sequestration and a debt ceiling deadline next month that, once again, has the potential to blow up the federal budget and bankrupt us – we’re to believe the latest urgent occasion for a bipartisan Kumbaya is agreeing to fire cruise missiles into Syria. Sorry if I, and the vast majority of voters, do not buy it.

Originally published at publicola

Alexander has opposed most civil rights measures

When arson hit an Olympia women’s health clinic, the clinic faced the loss of insurance coverage. Those trying to close churches and clinics through crimes such as arson and malicious mischief were abetted by insurance cancellations. Some celebrated the crimes.

When I called the clinic arson an act of terror, the Virginia-based Army of God, which encourages clinic bombings, called me a terrorist. To date the arsonist hasn’t been found. I introduced a bill with a simple-intent statement: “Rather than allow criminals to achieve their objectives, it is the intent of the Legislature that criminals, through criminal acts, should not dictate insurance underwriting decisions.” Protecting religious sanctuaries and clinics, it passed into law in 2006 with bipartisan support (the Senate vote was 45-4) – opposed only by a handful of far-right Republicans.

Those far-right Republicans included Gary Alexander, who is now both a state representative and our county auditor. Like Alexander, I pledged to serve only six years in the House. Unlike Alexander, now in his 17th year in the House, I kept that promise. During his long tenure Alexander has voted against every civil rights measure I am aware of.

Not only an opponent of the most basic civil rights for gays and lesbians, in 2007 he even voted against a law affirming the state legal rights of those with disabilities — a law that passed the Senate 46-2. Thurston County deserves an auditor who values the rights of all of its citizens.

Gary Alexander is not that candidate.

Originally published at the Olympian.

Non-partisan issue: Blame game doesn't help keep Boeing

Once again, it’s time to play, “Who lost Boeing?”

Led by Rodney Tom, Senate Republicans blame Gov. Jay Inslee, and inaction on a labor-opposed workers’ compensation bill, for up to 375 engineering jobs moving to California.

This is the same Jay Inslee who worked hard in Congress to secure an air refueling tanker contract for Boeing worth over $30 billion, and, needing to rally labor for his 2012 gubernatorial campaign, was, in 2011, still one of just 31 U.S. House Democrats to vote for the labor-opposed Colombia Trade Agreement that Boeing supported. Indeed, all of our congressional Democrats have been unfailingly supportive of Boeing. As governor, Inslee has made retaining Boeing jobs a top priority. This is not a partisan issue.

After the California announcement, Sen. Tom warned “we’re chasing Boeing out of town.” But who’s doing the chasing? When Tim Eyman’s transportation-defunding Initiative 695 was before voters in 1999, Boeing’s  chief financial officer warned, “Passage of I-695 would be a big blow to every corner of the state. It would hurt all of our businesses.” Maligning Boeing as a “bully,” Eyman and state Republicans pushed I-695 to passage anyway, and Boeing then moved its headquarters to Chicago. Eyman later secured 747 as an initiative number to get back at Boeing. And this session Senate Republicans killed a transportation funding package Boeing supported.

Trying to understand why a multi-national corporation does things is not easy. Washington’s workers’ compensation costs are considerably below California’s, which were the third-highest in the nation in 2012. We ranked 13th, with the employer burden even less given we are the nation’s only state requiring workers themselves to pay a share of premium costs (our employers’ cost is below even South Carolina’s).

Previous concessions to Boeing ensured that all in our state who lost jobs following the 2008 economic meltdown received lower unemployment benefits. Following the 2008 election, legislative Democratic supermajorities, and the then-governor, broke campaign promises to prevent employers from haranguing workers about politics in “captive audience” meetings — because Boeing opposed the bill.

How much further should we have raced to the bottom in the unguaranteed hope of retaining 375 jobs? Many analysts believe that for reasons that have nothing to do with economic rationality — rationality that would have prevented Boeing’s catastrophic outsourcing of 787 Dreamliner production (which Washington taxpayers provided huge incentives towards) among other mistakes — Boeing may be on the move anyway. I dearly hope that’s not true, but should we become even more backwards than South Carolina in the hope it doesn’t happen?

California has been an economic basket case given its debt load and dysfunctional politics that require a legislative supermajority or citizens’ vote to raise taxes. But another critical competitive difference between California and Washington is … drumroll … wait for it … California has both a corporate and personal income tax! Indeed, California’s personal income tax is the nation’s highest. Meanwhile, Washington’s Senate Republicans under Rodney Tom defeated efforts this past session to close even the most egregious tax loopholes — for oil polluters, for example — in a state that the conservative Tax Foundation has ranked in the best-6 for business taxes (California was ranked 48th and South Carolina 36th).

Tom and fellow Republicans need to cool their jets: The solution to keeping Boeing is not demagoguery, and it is certainly not talking down the economic competitiveness of one of the nation’s most objectively competitive states. Let’s not start a self-defeating bidding war against ourselves.

Brendan Williams, a former Washington legislator, is an attorney and disabilities’ advocate. 

Originally published at HeraldNet

American Enterprise Institute likes Pres. Obama's choice for economic chief advisor

“He has written on the importance of fiscal discipline, the need to undertake entitlement reform sooner rather than later, the role of international trade in improving living standards, and the benefits of Wal-Mart in boosting living standards for low-income Americans.“– Far-right American Enterprise Institute praising President Obama’s choice as chief economic adviser.

from the American Enterprise Institute:


We are pleased that President Obama has nominated Jason Furman, currently the principal deputy director of the National Economic Council, for the position of Chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

Transportation Funding: It Gets Worse

It seems odds to look back at the 2005 legislative session, my first as a House member, as a pinnacle of progressivism.  After all, it was eight years ago.  George W. Bush was President.

Yet consider: In 2003, legislative Democrats were routed by their own governor, Gary Locke, and a one-session Senate budget chair named Dino Rossi, in adoption of the 2003-05 biennial budget.  Senate Republicans were artful in exploiting what I call “Gohomeitis” – it seems no principle on earth will stand in the way of adjournment.  On June 5, 2003, the wait was over, and the 58th state legislature passed its budget in special session.

Having been burned so badly in 2003, Democrats in 2005—with restive new members and new Governor Chris Gregoire – moved forward on taxes.

That session, the last state transportation tax package passed. It was high drama. After passing the Senate by the narrowest of margins, 26-22, it failed in its first House floor vote. After an emotional caucus debate, the “Dime Package”—which actually increased gas taxes by 9.5 cents for three years—passed 54-43.

In November, voters sustained the package – rejecting Initiative 912, the talk show-inspired initiative (it was sponsored by John Carlson) that would have repealed the tax, by a 55 percent margin.

Also in 2005, Democrats needed to reinstate an estate tax that was effectively repealed by the Washington Supreme Court during the session.

The measure to reinstate the estate tax passed on a strictly party-line vote: 25-24 in the Senate, with all Republicans, plus nominal Democrat Tim Sheldon (D-35), opposed, and 50-48 in the House – with then-Republican Sen. Rodney Tom (who switched to the Democratic Party in 2006 but subsequently took the helm of the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus) among the opponents.

The restored tax was dedicated to education.  When opponents filed Initiative 920 to repeal it in 2006 to repeal it, 62 percent of Sheldon’s constituents, and 57 percent of Tom’s far more affluent suburban constituents, sided with Democrats in keeping the progressive tax.

The votes on Initiative 912 in 2005 and Initiative 920 in 2006 showed voters could agree with a bold legislature. No new taxes were raised until 2010. Despite the repeal of the candy and pop taxes that fall (through Initiative 1107), it is worth noting the bulk of taxes raised that session were never challenged—including a surcharge on the business and occupation tax for professional services, raising it from 1.5 percent to 1.8 percent of gross receipts. To put that figure into perspective, this tax was as high as 2.5% in the 1990s.  Fatefully, however, this surcharge, and a beer tax, was set to “sunset” this year.

This session has brought with it renewed interest in taxes.  The economic and public safety necessity of improving transportation funding was highlighted by the collapse of an I-5 bridge section into the Skagit River. And the Supreme Court has ruled that K-12 education is unconstitutionally underfunded, after years of recession-driven cuts.

Yet it is, at best, unclear that a Republican Senate will even allow transportation funding to move forward. At least a few Clark County Republicans appear to hope the vital I-5 crossing between Oregon and Washington collapses into the Columbia River.

On operating budget taxes, Democrats are now fighting a rearguard action.  Because the 2010 taxes expire July 1, simply maintaining them appears untenable.  After the sunset comes budgetary night.  And now, amazingly, the estate tax voters affirmed so overwhelmingly in 2006 is jeopardized.  Due to the October 2012 Washington Supreme Court Bracken decision, which involves complicated pre-2005 estate tax machinations, the state stands to lose money unless the Legislature acts.  The Republican senate is seizing the opportunity to cut a deal for wealthy estates.

I am not faulting the Democrats involved in current budget negotiations. I cannot understand all that they’re facing. The Senate situation seems especially impossible. Yet I do think we can look to the past to aspire to better things for the future.  Not only can we do better, we have  to.  Surely 2005 was not as good as it gets.

Originally published at Publicola

Commentary on Rodney Tom and the State Senate

Having ensured wife beaters have guns, crapped on rights of immigrants and women, tried to repeal industrial insurance, and cut the hell out of poor, Rodney Tom’s Senate is now triumphantly busying itself — through resolution primed by Tom’s handpicked budget vice chair Michael Baumgartner (Tea Party, Spokane) — honoring union-busting Margaret Thatcher for restoring “Old Empire.” The Senate, without objection, approved today a resolution honoring Margaret Thatcher. Among other things, perhaps reflecting their own budget: “Her work to restructure the British financial system provided paramount examples of the proper way to revitalize economies around the world”