Most of the rhetoric in Olympia these days masks a simple question confronting legislators: As the state slowly climbs out of the Great Recession, will they continue undercutting and defunding public education, social services and other public structures in a quest for short-term budget gains -- or will they make the (admittedly more difficult) choice to invest for long-run value?
Faced with a flat or declining income, families often buy less or borrow more in the short run. You can see that approach in the last four years of state budgets, which have drastically cut funding for everything from K-12 schools to higher education, long-term care, state parks, and more. But even when times are tight, people spend money in order to protect their current investments and build capacity for future income -- like fixing up their homes, going to college, even buying a car when the old one is kaput.
Likewise, public dollars cover current expenses, such as salaries for state patrol officers, teachers, nurses and social workers. And they're also important for making and protecting long-term investments that build value.
For example, when the state provided funds to build the Everett Community College campus in the late 1950s, there was no expectation it would "turn a profit." And when a fire burned down the library and student union building in 1987, the new Trojan Union Building was built immediately, with the state providing emergency funds. No profit there, either. The construction of the Nursing and Health Sciences Building is a huge investment for the future, providing a pathway for the education of health care providers, nurses, medical assistants, radiology technicians, physical therapists -- but not profit.
Why persist in making public investments when times are tough -- when we don't see much of a return after one quarter or one year, and the real returns may be one or more generations away? Because we all recognize the value of investing for smarter, healthier and more prosperous citizens in our state -- even if there's no "profit" to be gained such as you'd find in hedge funds or private industry.
That's why our government doesn't -- and shouldn't -- exist to turn a profit. It exists to build long-term value in people. And that's why our legislators should persist in making public investments that benefit the public as a whole.
Those averse to that idea will commonly say the state doesn't have any money, despite the fact that personal income in Washington has grown by $50 billion since 2009. That's about $7,500 per resident -- but since almost all of the gains have gone to the top 1 percent, most people are no better off. Washington's tax system doesn't touch the income of the most privileged, so even though our "family income" has increased dramatically, our state doesn't have sufficient funds for schools, roads, social services and other important investments.
We should challenge our state leaders to prioritize long-term investments, by asking those who have benefitted the most from soaring incomes to pay their fair share toward a better future. Otherwise we're looking at more of the same bad choices: increased class sizes, more college tuition increases, and additional park closures, to name just a few. That approach only digs a deeper long-term hole for us all, as hope and economic opportunity are lost for a generation or more of our citizens.
Put another way: we can either insist that our leaders repair and rebuild the ladder of opportunity that defines the American Dream, or we can let them pull the ladder up. If we want our children and grandchildren to have opportunities like -- or even better than -- we had, then we have to fund our public structures and services now. As the budget debate heats up, that's the real bottom line for our legislators, our residents, our state and our future.
John Burbank is the Executive Director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org). He can be reached via email at email@example.com
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