By John Burbank
In about a week, when all the ballots are counted, we will know for sure who will be our elected public servants for the next few years. But ask your friends and neighbors the simple question: Who are the state senator and representatives for the area where you live? For the most part, you probably will get a shrug.
Most of us know who the president is, who are our U.S. senators, and our governor. But jump down to the state Legislature and we draw a blank. While most of our political news is about Congress and the president, the Legislature is where most of the laws are made (or not made) that determine public services for the people of this state. For example, the Legislature is under a court order right now to adequately fund K-12 education. The mandated reforms include lowering class sizes and increasing classroom time for students. Now that is something that directly affects the kids in your city and, indeed, more than one million kids in our state. And it costs money. That’s something for next year’s Legislature to figure out.
The Legislature decides a lot of other things, too. In Washington, about a half-million people who are not absolutely poor, but right on the margin, have become eligible for health coverage through our public Apple Health Care, a Medicaid program, thanks to our Legislature and governor. In some other states, those elected officials decided to deny coverage to people who work hard for low wages.
On the other hand, our Legislature has chosen to defund higher education over the past 6 years, rather than closing tax loopholes, forcing middle class parents to cough up tuition exceeding a fifth of their income and forcing students to go deep into student debt. It is the same Legislature that has been unwilling to close corporate tax loopholes to actually be able to fund public services such as education and mental health coverage and long term care.
Now it is easy to point to the Legislature and say, “they didn’t fund education, or transportation for a growing economy and a growing population. But that is a pretty broad stroke. There are many legislators that are willing and eager to step up to the plate as public servants. But there are others who frankly want to just throw hurdles in the way. That was certainly the case last year, when an agreed-upon transportation package was torpedoed by one state senator in southwest Washington who is a member of the Republican caucus, which controlled the Senate.
So the people we elect this November have a lot on their plate, from education to protecting the environment, to dealing with coal trains, to insuring that we have a strong public health network (essential to corralling a disease like Ebola). But we shouldn’t just assume that legislators will act for the public good all by themselves. We can and should let them know what we think is good and essential public policy. If we don’t then the discussion will be controlled by the corporate lobbyists who crowd the halls in Olympia.
Here’s a fundamental issue of humanity for the Legislature to chew on and put into law. We need a law guaranteeing paid sick days for all workers. Seattle has this in place now. The Seattle ordinance has been replicated in Portland, New York City, and other cities around the country. Connecticut passed a statewide paid sick days law this year. It is time we did the same. People should not have to choose between going to work and recovering from an illness, or caring for an ill child or parent. But in our state, this is exactly the Sophie’s choice many workers, especially low-wage workers, are forced to make, sometimes losing their jobs as a consequence.
This is just one idea for creating a better quality of life for the citizens of Washington state. Such a law will not pass in the stalemate of Washington, D.C. So all the more reason for us to keep our eyes on our state legislators and make sure they do the right thing for us in Olympia.
John Burbank is the executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org). Email firstname.lastname@example.org.