There’s a lot to ridicule in this Freedom Foundation blow-job from the Seattle Times editorial board, but for the sake of brevity, I think I’ll just focus on this single sentence:
These agreements are among the reasons for the disastrous run up in state spending during the bubble years of the 2000s.
Forget for a moment the editor’s ridiculous assertion that our public employee unions are somehow to blame for our state’s budget woes. Instead, I’m just going to rip into the underlying premise. For in fact, there was no run up in state spending during the 2000s, disastrous or otherwise. And unlike those lying liars at the Seattle Times, I’ll show you the data to prove it:
The chart above was copy and pasted directly from the pages of the Washington State Office of Financial Management (OFM), and while it does show a modest rise in spending from a low of $187.73 per $1,000 of income in 2000 to a mid-decade high of $205.75 in 2004, it only comes on the heels of a steep eight-year decline from a peak of $224.37 in 1993, followed by an immediate drop to $196.41 by 2006. Viewed through any reasonable time frame, this is nothing more than a blip.
But in fact, the “disastrous run up” the editors are really referring to is the 2007-09 biennial budget, in which Governor Christine Gregoire briefly restored voter-approved teacher COLAs, as well as COLAs for other state workers who hadn’t seen a raise in years. Squint closely and you can see it on the chart. That’s what the Seattle Times has been bitching about all these years.
Indeed, if there’s anything remarkable about the 2000s, it’s that state spending remained relatively flat compared to the more erratic oscillations of the previous two decades. State and local expenditures pretty much track the 50-state average (though slightly below) throughout the decade, fluctuating right along with the economy.
Seriously, take a look at that chart, and show me the “disastrous run up in state spending.” You can’t. Because it’s not there. And it’s not there for a very good reason.
The OFM chart above tracks Washington state and local taxes as a percentage of personal income, and not surprisingly, tells a similar story to state and local expenditures. Because, you know, one pays for the other.
In this case, taxes peaked at just below $125 per $1,000 of personal income in 1989, settled to about $119 over the next few years, before falling into an eight-year decline that bottomed out at $98.91 in 2002. Tax revenues did recover over the next few years to $109.43 in 2006, before falling off the cliff during the great recession. By 2011, the latest year for which OFM provides data, taxes had dropped to under $95 per $1,000 of personal income, the lowest effective average tax rate in the 31 years charted!
And again, throughout the 2000s, Washington’s state and local taxes largely track fluctuations in the 50-state average, if quite a bit below it. In 2011, Washington’s tax “burden” ranked 37th nationwide.
Now I know what some of you right-wing skeptics are thinking: lies, damn lies, and statistics, amirite? Goldy’s talking state and local expenditures and taxes as percentage of personal income in an effort to obscure some inconvenient truth.
Well, no. Taxes and spending as a percentage of personal income is a metric that inherently incorporates the impact of both economic and population growth, as well as inflation, thus presenting the most accurate picture of relative taxes and spending over time. And if you’re worried that OFM’s inclusion of local taxes muddies the picture, considering that the editors were only talking about state spending, well, you’re kinda right. When you break out just state taxes, the decline per $1,000 of income becomes even starker:
There’s your run up in state taxes for you—from a half-century low, up slightly mid-decade, and then off the cliff again. Disastrous! Just not in the way the Seattle Times implies.
And if you’re still not convinced that there hasn’t been some sort of secret hidden run-up in state spending that would prove the editors’ claim, just take a gander at this:
State workers are in fact the state’s largest expense, but do you see any sort of run up in state hiring during the 2000s? No you do not. In fact, the gap between population growth and state FTEs widened slightly throughout the first half of the decade before the state started madly shedding government workers during the Great Recession.
Go to the OFM website. Look at all of the charts. By any reasonable metric the “disastrous run up in state spending” that the Seattle Times has been pouting over for years, simply did not happen! The entire premise upon which the paper has built its relentless attack on public employee unions—that state spending is out of control—is entirely unsupported by the data. Indeed, what these charts actually show is a structural revenue deficit that has left state government unable to grow state services and investments commensurate with our needs.
And while none of these charts speak directly to the editors’ claim that public employee unions are bankrupting the state by extorting extravagant contracts through secret negotiations, given the context, where exactly are all these overpaid state workers? More than 45 percent of state general fund spending goes toward K-12 education, and yet the National Education Association reports that Washington state teachers—already paid well below the national average—actually saw their inflation-adjusted wages fall by 8.5 percent from 2002 through 2012. Are they really arguing that we should cut teacher pay even more?
And if it’s not the dastardly teachers union that is to blame, then who? Is it our state troopers who are overpaid? The men and women risking their lives fighting fires in Eastern Washington? The evil, evil members of perpetual Seattle Times boogeyman SEIU 775 NW, who now earn an extravagant starting wage of $11.06 an hour to wipe the poop off your grandma—a modest pay hike earned not through some secret back room deal, but through binding arbitration?
As I have said for years, there is a legitimate debate to be had over the proper size and scope of government, but the Seattle Times editorial board refuses to engage in it honestly. Instead, they obstruct debate through dog-whistle attacks on public employee unions and the relentless repetition of an out-of-control-state-spending meme that is entirely contradicted by the facts.
It is not state spending that is the problem, but state revenue. You could bust the public employee unions, convert their pensions to 401Ks, slash their health care benefits, and freeze their pay, and you still wouldn’t have enough money to fully fund McCleary. Even worse, in another ten years or so, we’d be right back to where we started. Because that is the nature of a structural revenue deficit. And no amount of lying or union-bashing can ever change that.