Earlier this week I blogged on Seattle Times and AP reports on the financial woes of small-town Washington, like Mansfield and Bridgeport in rural Douglas County. ["Unintended consequences" Part 1 and Part 2]
Josh Feit follows up on the mainstream media’s sympathetic news coverage, but in The Stranger’s characteristically mean mien: “You Made Your Bed.”
Josh interviews Tricia Sima, tiny Mansfield’s beleaguered town clerk, who has been forced to cut a host of services — and add custodial duties to her own job description — as the city lost 76% of its revenues in the wake of Tim Eyman’s anti-car-tab I-695, and anti-property-tax I-747. Josh was decidedly unsympathetic.
After I established that Sima was a Republican (“I’m a bit conservative,” she chimed proudly) I asked her my question: Had the harsh reality of budget cuts made her reevaluate her conservative convictions about taxes? “No,” she told me emphatically. “I believe we can cut other programs that would not hurt the small rural areas.” (How’s that for traditional values? Greed and selfishness.)
According to Josh, compared to a rural county like Douglas, an urban county like King contributes 110 percent more state sales tax per capita, yet gets back from the state only 21 percent more. And King County actually generates 41 percent of state sales tax revenues, while Douglas County nets nearly $300,000 in special assistance. I have been warned in the past that revenue flow comparisons such as these can be complex and misleading, but have been assured by every “expert” I have consulted that, contrary to the myth oft repeated by politicians east of the Cascades, revenue does indeed flow from urban to rural areas.
Yet Douglas County voted 70.3 percent for I-695 and 69.9 percent for I-747. Josh is justifiably irritated at the suggestion that we should cut our services to maintain theirs.
Despite their disproportionate role in the equation, Republicans like Sima think services for the rural areas should take priority when taxes are cut. To that I say, I hope Mansfield’s leaky sewage lagoon is somewhere near Sima’s home.
Now some might (will) argue that if Mansfield wants more public services they are free to tax themselves. But Eyman’s I-776 was a statewide initiative aimed at preventing voters in three urban counties from doing exactly that… taxing themselves. A political “fuck you” that promised to stop Sound Transit from building light rail, it passed by a comfortable margin throughout most of the state, but failed in nearly every precinct within the Sound Transit taxing district.
Understand that the local MVET taxes I-776 banned were only levied in a handful of western Washington counties, and yet people like Sima voted to prevent us, from taxing ourselves, to maintain our public infrastructure… while at the same time expecting us to divert our dwindling tax revenues to subsidize theirs.
Don’t get me wrong; I believe most voters go to the polls attempting to do what they believe is right for their community. Unfortunately, our sense of community has grown so incredibly narrow, that we often fail to see the complex tangle of social, political, and economic interdependencies that Washington state really is. I join Josh Feit in his justifiable outrage over Sima’s misinformed and shortsighted politics, but rather than taking I-told-you-so satisfaction from the image of her backyard overflowing with sewage, I view it as a disturbing metaphor for Washington’s potential future.
There is a growing consensus in Olympia that structural flaws in Washington’s tax system are so profound, that beyond the perpetual budget crises we have now, state and local governments will eventually fall into a catastrophic financial meltdown, sometime within the next decade. Some Democrats see this as an opportunity, a point at which Washington will have no choice but to accept an income tax… or cease to be a modern economy.
I’m not so confident that given the current political climate, voters will make the responsible choice. Major tax restructuring is absolutely essential if we are to stay vital and competitive. But not even a fatal crisis will get us there, unless we first educate voters as to the realities of our current system, and the advantages of a new one.
Politics is rarely about leadership. Most successful politicians are more adept at convincing voters that they agree with us, than at persuading us to agree with them. But giving voters what they want is not leading… it is following.
It is time for individuals and organizations to take on the arduous and nearly-impossible task of shifting public opinion. Whether rising above the rhetorical rancor, or harnessing it to their own devices, it is time for leaders to step forth and risk their political careers in the service of persuading voters that tax restructuring is in the self-interest of all of Washington’s citizens, even those few at the top who will surely see their taxes rise. It is time to build a consensus for a tax system that at the very least meets the needs of a twentieth-century economy, if not the twenty-first.
Republicans refuse to engage in an honest public debate over the proper size and scope of government, because despite the loudmouthed libertarians on the right-wing blogs, they know they’ll lose. And Democrats are equally fearful of telling voters the truth about what it actually takes to give us the services we demand; instead, they perpetuate the charade that we can continue to close an endless series of multi-billion dollar budget gaps without raising revenues… or reverting to a nineteenth-century economy.
Yes I know that I am generalizing; there are some politicians willing to speak out on these issues, but rarely loud enough. For when someone like Ron Sims does, we the people take out his knees, desperately angry at the messenger for telling us what we don’t want to hear. Meanwhile, the politicians who lie the best, we reward the most. There is an odd, pathological symbiosis between us voters and our elected officials, that I would say is suggestive of the “Stockholm Syndrome” if only I could figure out who has been taken hostage by whom.
But we need political leadership whether we want it or not. So somebody better provide some before there’s no one left to lead.
It may be spitefully satisfying to envision Tricia Sima encamped on the edge of her leaking sewage lagoon, but it won’t be so amusing ten or twenty years from now when we are all wallowing in our own communal, political shit, passionately blaming the other guy for what went wrong.
Personally, I’m still willing to help Tricia clean up her mess, if she’s willing to help me clean up mine.