One of the classic attacks on liberals like me is to berate us as “tax and spend” Democrats — an ironic pejorative in light of the record budget deficits rung up over the past six years of absolute Republican control over the federal government.
But the truth is, I do believe in taxing and I do believe in spending as legitimate and necessary roles of government… and for more things than just killing brown people overseas.
There is still this Reagan-era perception amongst many diehard conservatives that the bulk of our tax dollars goes towards supporting lazy poor people, provoking an angry and visceral reaction to any notion of a tax increase. But in fact one of government’s primary roles is building and maintaining the critical (and sometimes invisible) infrastructure on which our economy and our standard of living depend.
A recent rash of water main breaks in Seattle highlights both the cost and danger of deferred maintenance. The usual knee-jerk, righty comeback is to blame this on incompetent local Democrats, but as an article in today’s Seattle Times highlights, our crumbling system of aging drinking-water and wastewater pipes is a nationwide problem, and a particular crisis for rural (ie, Republican) communities that lack the local tax base to replace or repair this infrastructure on their own.
All over the state — and all over the nation — broken and leaking pipes have many poor rural communities facing similar health threats and economic hardships. It’s been a problem that has been buried for decades. But a crisis point is finally arriving, experts warn. And there’s nowhere near enough government money to go around.
As last Wednesday’s rupture of a water main under Seattle’s University Bridge showed, it’s a problem affecting urban areas, too. But the experts say the difference for such towns as Vader is clear: They don’t have the millions of dollars that big cities have to keep their systems running.
One federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) survey has estimated that Washington state alone needs at least $6.7 billion over 20 years to replace aging drinking-water pipes.
Nationally, the EPA guesses it could cost $300 billion over the next 20 years just for drinking-water pipes, and almost as much to replace failing wastewater lines.
“We have never been in this situation before, where such a vast system of infrastructure is aging like it is,” said Ben Grumbles, an assistant EPA administrator in Washington, D.C. “Water is life, and infrastructure systems are the lifeblood of a community.”
Left purely to free market forces, many of our rural water systems make as little business sense as rural electrification — one of the great triumphs of mid-twentieth century American-style socialism. As their aging infrastructure slowly collapses, driving families and businesses out of the region, the politicians who represent these rural districts should be faced with a choice: abandon the destructive, divisive and dishonest rhetoric of East vs. West, Rural vs. Urban, Republican vs. Democrat, or be prepared to have our state’s urban, Democratic majority greet your plight with the same lack of compassion and empathy with which you greet ours.
Residents of Washington state’s rural, suburban and urban areas all have critical public infrastructure needs — some shared, some not. But whatever the specifics, these needs can best be met by working together, rather than brandishing rigid, ideological swords in a fight to the death over dwindling public resources. At the same time conservative politicians champion the values and heritage of rural life, their anti-tax, anti-government screeds are poisoning the well — literally and figuratively — that made this lifestyle possible. For the past hundred years it was government that built and subsidized the infrastructure (transportation, electrification, irrigation, education, etc.) that allowed agricultural communities to grow and prosper. And only government has the incentive to invest in this infrastructure for the next century and beyond.
As our global food safety crisis makes clear, urban Americans have a vital stake in maintaining the livelihood and lifestyle of our rural neighbors, both out of appreciation and gratitude for the hard labor they put into feeding us, and out of simple, rational self-interest. By pressuring the margins of local farmers and processors, the walmartification of our food industry puts us all at risk. And for all of its obvious commonsense, the growing “Eat Local” movement can never be more than a slogan without local farmers to grow our food.
The explosion in the number of farmers markets throughout the Puget Sound region is as much about maintaining healthy rural communities as it is about healthy eating. Urban consumers have shown a willingness to pay a premium for high-quality fresh produce, knowing that the extra dollars are going directly to local growers. But ironically, it is this urban, progressive community that is most harshly vilified by the right-wing Republicans who represent much of rural Washington.
I believe that there is the political will, statewide, to continue to subsidize the investment in public infrastructure necessary to help Washington’s agricultural communities prosper for another hundred years. But to tap into this consensus the elected officials who represent these rural districts must stop painting state government as the enemy, and vindictively interfering in the ability of urban residents to tax themselves to meet their own infrastructure needs. Every time a rural Republican tells Seattle voters that we should not have the right to tax ourselves to build light rail or choose the means by which SR99 will run through our downtown waterfront, it undermines our support for fixing the leaky pipes beneath the streets of Vader and Tieton and a hundred other rural Washington towns.
Vader’s 2007 budget is a little more than $620,000. Nearly 40 percent — $244,000 — is for the water and sewer system.
Last year, the town replaced a worn-out clay sewer line and repaved Main Street with $1 million in grants and loans.
What the town really needs is a sewage-treatment plant. But “there’s no way 600 people can afford a $6 million sewage treatment plant,” [Mayor Guy] Chastain said.
Yes, governments tax and spend. But I suppose when your only hope of maintaining critical local infrastructure is to appeal for grants and loans from state and federal government, “tax and spend” isn’t such a pejorative.