Report on the 41st LD Town Hall meeting: budget cuts bite

Saturday afternoon I attended the 41st Legislative District  Town Hall meeting at Mercer Island High School.  State Sen. Steve Litzow (R),  Rep. Judy Clibborn (D), and Rep. Marcie Maxwell (D) spoke.  There was a huge turnout, despite the rain.

Most of the time was sent on questions and answers.  Almost all the questions concerned the painful budget cuts, especially with regard to education and social services.   Most of the questioners asked the legislators to preserve funding for education. A few mentioned social services (for example, programs for disabled people).  But one angry old guy complained about being “taxed to death” and about waste in government programs.  A few people made pleas for construction projects (jobs bills) or other special interest legislation.

Photo of Mercer Island Town Hall meeting for the 41st LD
Mercer Island Town Hall meeting for the 41st LD

The legislators repeatedly acknowledged that the cuts are severe and painful (“cutting bone, not just fat”). They acknowledged, when asked, that some of the cuts will cost more in the long run (“penny wise, pound foolish”).  They acknowledged that the state constitution says education is the paramount duty of the state (a fact that I’m sure angers conservatives, who are eager to defund public education).  But their hands are tied,  they say, due to the voters’ rejection of I-1098 (the high-earner’s income tax initiative) and due to their approval of I-1053 (Tim Eyman’s initiative requiring a 2/3 super-majority  for legislators to raise revenue).

One of the legislators — I forget who — said that most voters were surely unaware, when they voted for I-1053, that it makes it very difficult to eliminate tax breaks from the tax code.  There are over 500 of them, some maybe worthy, most special interest giveaways to entities like Boeing, out-of-state banks, and owners of private aircraft.

Organizations like Economic Opportunity Institute have valuable papers explaining the desirability of eliminating tax breaks.

In response to the angry old guy’s rant about waste in the state budget, Republican  Steve Litzow said that there’s very little left that can be cut.  This from a Republican!  Republican Congressman Dave Reichert too admitted, during a forum in Newcastle, that the Bush tax cuts were bad. But when Republicans campaign and vote, they favor regressive views.  Maybe it’s the system. Litzow also mentioned the regressiveness of the current tax system in Washington State.

The issue came up whether state workers are over-compensated (benefits). A legislator pointed out that their staff got pay cuts and furloughs, so it’s not true that only private sector workers have sacrificed.

Rep. Clibborn recommended that everyone not succumb to a doom-and-gloom mentality. Despite the budget problems, Washington State’s vibrant economy is still the envy of the nation, she said.

There were so many questions from the crowd that many people, including me, didn’t get a chance to speak. I wanted to ask about I-1053, which is almost certainly unconstitutional, since the state constitution says that a majority of legislators is sufficient to pass a bill.  And I wanted to counter the angry old anti-tax guy by pointing out that taxes are lower than they’ve been in decades; Washington State has perhaps the most regressive tax system in the country; the concentration of wealth has been increasing; rich get bailouts and subsidies while they ship jobs and profits overseas; you pay more in taxes than some huge corporations; etc, etc.

After the event, I chatted with one of the legislative aides (who are generally very knowledgeable about how things work).  I asked about the prospects for getting I-1053 declared unconstitutional. He said that both the state House and the Senate would have to pass the bill, then it would be challenged in court.  But Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen is a stumbling block.  He would almost certainly refuse to approve of the bill. Though he’s a Democrat, he’s a centrist Democrat.


This Sightline Daily article BP & Eyman’s I-1053: Unconstitutional has an excellent analysis of I-1053:

Unfortunately, the state Supreme Court is wary about ruling on such measures, because they concern the operating procedures of the legislature. The Supreme Court tries to keeps its nose out of the legislative branch’s affairs, as state constitutional law scholar Hugh Spitzer explained to Crosscut. The justices have twice dismissed on technical grounds challenges to minority rule initiatives. Most recently, they regarded a case brought by the Senate Majority Leader as a procedural dispute with the state Lieutenant Governor (the senate’s presiding officer, who chose to enforce I-960). Whether the Lieutenant Governor will continue to disregard the constitution, and whether the Supreme Court will allow him to do so, is anyone’s guess.

On the merits, the central legal issue is straightforward: Even in conservative Alaska, the state supreme court rejected a minority-rule ballot measure as unconstitutional, because it tried to change the constitution without going through the required steps.

In fact, Washington is the only state in the nation where minority rule has been imposed through a regular law. (In 16 states, citizens have voted to amend their constitutions to enact minority rule on votes that increase (certain) taxes. These constitutional amendments were undemocratic and ill-conceived, but at least they were legally enacted.)

The article Will the Courts Overturn I-1053 explains how to overturn I-1053. “But Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen, who has presided in the state senate since 1996, has consistently enforced minority rule, under each variation that voters have approved… Mr. Spitzer says that if and when the members of the court finally have the question squarely before them, they will almost certainly rule I-1053 unconstitutional.”

But this seems unlikely to happen, due to the voters’ near 2 to 1 rejection of tax increases and due to the legislators’ and governor’s desire to follow the will of the voters, however misguided. One of the 41st LD legislators mentioned that Governor Gregoire asked the legislators not to raise taxes — something I’ve heard that she said earlier too.

I asked the angry old anti-tax guy, “Excuse me. Do you mind telling me whether you consider yourself middle class?”  He said yes. I described the regressiveness of the tax system here. He retorted that real estate taxes especially are high. “But I-1098 would have shifted some of the tax burden to the rich.”  He replied by describing how government spends $25 million on art — it’s a requirement that construction projects devote 1/2 of 1 percent of funding on art. He said that even the garbage dump has art.

A fundamental problem is that, due to disinformation and marketing, the middle class continues to vote against their own self-interest.

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