Politics and accountability are interwoven. In a frenzied era of initiatives and referenda, decisions on sin taxes, criminal justice, education funding and transportation priorities rest squarely with Washington voters. “We the people,” our defining ideal, entails responsibility.
During the 2013 legislative session, the real deciders — political advocates and restive citizens — recall the New Testament parable of the faithful servant, that to whom much is given, much will be required. For K-12 advocates that demands informing legislators about what they will tolerate revenue-wise. Is curtailing human services, higher education or the Department of Social and Health Services a prudent course? Should the state impose a capital-gains tax to fulfill the Supreme Court’s McCleary mandate?
The latter approach, a 5 percent excise tax on capital gains with the first $10,000 in gains exempted for individuals, was floated by Sen. Ed Murray last week.
Understanding the popular will, the readiness to sacrifice or the impulse to punt is fundamental. Judgment for or against a revenue package will ultimately fall to voters and voters can be taciturn. Live within your means, we say, just don’t cut X. That sentiment is given additional punch in The Herald’s Need to Know chart Sunday, illustrating the growth of state spending, pulled together by Chuck Taylor and Jerry Cornfield. Overall spending continues to swell, but the devil is in the beyond-the-state’s-control details. Contractual obligations to state employees and rising health care are, for now, untouchable.
Because the initiative boom devolved more authority to voters, the locus of political power shifted from legislators to citizens. To chop means to dive deep into discretionary spending, and we the people, in our collective wisdom or self-interested bias, are accountable.
In the old days of burgeoning economic growth, citizens could have it all, it seemed. In the 1970s, University of Washington President Charles Odegaard would lecture lawmakers about the university’s mushrooming needs. One lawmaker responded, “Well, doctor, that is fine, but how do you propose to pay for your program?” Odegaard is said to have replied, “That is your problem!”
Now, it’s our problem. We are the (hopefully) faithful servant.
Lawmakers have been relegated to the role of recommenders, Rep. Mike Sells notes. Sells challenges every group that comes in the door of his Olympia office, asking them what they would support on revenue or cuts. The reflex is to pull a “that is your problem” Odegaard-ism. That evasion, however human, is a non-starter. Sells and his colleagues want to lead. To succeed, they require a clear sense of the public will.