Counter the lobbyists who occupy Olympia

I rode to work in the dark this morning, and I will probably ride home in the dark this evening. It’s that time of year, the sun rising later and setting earlier, Halloween right around the corner, and winter and darkness impending.

The nation’s mood is equally darkening, and things are not much better here in Washington. We need jobs, and they are not materializing. We need better wages, and they are being pushed down. We need more openings in colleges and we are getting fewer. We need affordable tuition and it is getting less so. We need lower class sizes in K-12 and classes are becoming more crowded. We need arts and music and physical education, and all these are being cut. We need health coverage and more people are uninsured. We need prosperity and yet every fifth kid in our state lives in poverty.

So what to do? Here is where our government could help, if our elected officials wanted to help. Our state is faced with a $1.5 billion funding gap, so the governor has called a special legislative session. Most likely she will recommend more cuts to close the funding gap. This will only dig our economic hole deeper, destroy jobs, and increase poverty.

The Legislature could say to the governor that we need to invest in education and health care. And to do so we are going to close up some of the tax loopholes that corporate lobbyists have snuck into the tax code, gobbling up billions of what used to be public money for public services, like higher education.

Here’s a good one: Right now banks don’t pay any taxes on the interest they get from mortgages they hold. That’s a drain of $50 million just this year. There is no sales tax on financial planning, investment advising or securities trading. That’s feeding the casino financial economy, and costing us another $50 million this year. A sales tax exemption for chemical fertilizers costs another $50 million.

What’s odd about these exemptions is that they encourage activity that is bad for the state, from slicing and dicing mortgages into “new” products that fueled the financial boom and bust, to churning and destabilizing the financial industry, to promoting bad agricultural practices. In the long run, we all pay for these behaviors, as we have found out so acutely these past three years. In the short run, our public services are starved and neglected.

What would happen if we closed those loopholes and used that $150 million for education? We could provide free tuition for the first year of community college for all high school graduates in the state. And we would add $225 million to the state’s economy. That’s because the money spent on community colleges stays in the state and is used to employ middle-income teachers and staff, who spend the wages they receive. They spend this money in local food, clothing and other retail stores. And that creates more jobs in these stores. How many more jobs? More than 2,000, counting both the jobs from the public services and those from private purchasing. And that’s just for those three loopholes.

If the Legislature wished, it could figure out a way to fund the $1.5 billion gap by closing all the damaging tax loopholes and adding taxes on luxury items that are out of reach of the vast majority of Washington citizens. If they did, they would save thousands of jobs, both in the public sector, such as the teachers in your kids’ schools, and in the private sector, thanks to the continued demand for retail products that come from employed workers, as opposed to jobless workers. Or as opposed to coddled corporate executives who stash their money in other states and countries.

Of course, doing that would mean standing up to the corporate lobbyists who currently rule Olympia. It would take some gumption — not from legislators, but from the 99 percent of people who don’t benefit from the corporate handouts and are being hurt by the status quo.

So this fall, instead of letting lobbyists occupy your legislator’s time and attention like they usually do, why not occupy the Rotunda in Olympia while the Legislature is in session? Spend some “quality time” in your legislator’s office, asking them what specific actions they are going to take to close loopholes and restore economic opportunity and growth in our state. To expect change on their part without action on our part is to be set up for disappointment.

The special session starts Nov. 28.

John Burbank is executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org). His email address is john@eoionline.org.

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