Amid the late unpleasantness in Florida and the wild, debauched partying at Cantwell headquarters, relatively little public and media attention has focused on the nail-biting election results that had the most actually direct impact on Seattleites. Yes, that's right; in case you haven't heard, the tie is back.
With the Democrats' losing two seats in the state Senate, the state Legislature in Olympia will be more stalemated than ever as it dives next month into those hellish 105 days—not counting the inevitable special sessions at the end—during which the state's biannual budget must be approved. The Democrats, with the relentlessly centrist Governor Locke in the lead, have only a tenuous 25-24 lead on the Republicans in the Senate and, once again, a dead tie in the House.
"People assume that there was nothing done in the last two years, and that's flat-out wrong," says Frank Chopp, Democratic caucus leader in the House. "For the next two years, the budget challenges will be greater, and we want to avoid gridlock, obviously."
Chopp is correct: Plenty was done in the last two years. But not much of it was very good. Democrats and Republicans spent so much time squabbling over the self-inflicted wounds of Initiative 695 (the courts threw it out, but the Legislature enacted the revenue-gutting portion anyway) that neither party could advance a positive agenda.
This year, there's far more at stake. The budget for every program in the state's arsenal is up for grabs. Remarkably, in this time of relative prosperity for most of the state, Olympia is utterly hamstrung financially. Politicians are quick to blame the voters, who once again this year passed both tax cuts (Tim Eyman's I-722) and big-ticket spending initiatives, like I-728 (class sizes) and I-732 (cost-of-living increases for teachers). Combined with I-695 and all of yesteryear's tax cuts and spending caps, we are left with a state that is paradoxically flush with money and unable to fund much of anything outside its K-12 programs.
Don't blame the voters. Ours is a natural response to a tax system that takes bigger bites out of poor and middle-class incomes than from the wealthy: Washington state has no income tax and instead relies on regressive property taxes and sales taxes. If our legislators and governors had been willing to tackle the twin problems of unfair tax burdens on the middle and working classes and small businesses and the hefty loopholes and handouts for big business, we wouldn't be in this fix. But here we are, and we must rely on a stalemated legislature to resolve it.
The Office of Financial Management (the state budget folks) asked Locke to ask department heads to submit budget requests with 6 percent in cuts from the last biennium.
Penalizing the poor
An intricate game has followed, in which departments are proposing to ax programs with strong political support in the hope that those will be saved and that less popular programs included in the original funding request will also survive, observers say.
For example, DSHS has proposed eliminating adult vision and dental services now funded through Medicaid to the tune of $8 million (vision) and $72 million (dental). "I'm certainly hopeful that people will speak up," says Jon Gould of the Children's Alliance, a Seattle-based social service advocacy group. "It certainly isn't the first time they've found those chunks of money from poor people."
Plenty of other people stand to be hurt, too. The Legislature passed an emergency allocation last year to restore some of the funding for basic government services in rural areas lost under I-695, but that was only a quick fix for one year. And while some public transportation money lost under I-695 was restored, gaping holes remain. The Republican caucus plans to push for an Eyman-style concentration on new road building, while letting last year's cuts in public transit service stand.
And then there's health care. Last year, in their infinite, lobbyist-induced wisdom, Locke and the Legislature pushed through a plan to allow insurance companies to dump the most chronically ill 8 percent of its clients into the state's high-risk pool. (Health insurance companies are much more profitable if they don't have to actually service sick people.) Nobody seems to have thought through the question of where the state would get the money to pay for the care of this chronically ill population. Meanwhile, the winnowing of the Basic Health Plan's clientele continues, and the Legislature, rather than actually addressing the state's growing crisis in health care, seems content to turn to the insurance industry for answers—like a doctor getting medical advice from a patient's tapeworm.
There are quite a few such pressing problems that our gridlocked legislature probably won't move on: farmworker housing, very low income housing, salmon recovery (Locke's plan from last year is a drop in the bucket, and even that is largely in litigation), social services for people dumped from the WorkFirst program, the foster care system, funding for higher education, expansion of the federal Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to cover whole families. . . . The list goes on.
The grassroots activists who targeted the WTO or mobilized to campaign for folks like Nader or Cantwell or Gore should really pay more attention to what goes on in Olympia. Seattle's state legislators—Democrats all—are perennially elected with 80 percent to 90 percent of the vote and little in the way of public scrutiny. Their actions impact people's lives. This year, much is in danger, and those safe seat Democrats could help by taking the risks swing district legislators can't and providing leadership—not simply lowest-common-denominator compromises with social conservatives and big business lobbyists. Without that sort of leadership and what Jon Gould calls "people speaking up," it's going to be a long 105 days.