Voters send clear signal: Leave vital services intact

Voters east of the Cascades turned conventional wisdom on its head last week.

These voters are often portrayed by the Seattle media market as conservative, anti-tax, anti-government citizens. Turns out they can recognize snake oil as soon as they see it. Twelve out of 20 counties in Eastern Washington rejected Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1033.

Totaling up the complete Eastern Washington vote, 1033 was defeated by a margin of 54-46 percent. That’s not including any votes from west of the mountains, from the Puget Sound area, or even liberal Seattle. More voters in Spokane and the rural wheat-belt counties of Lincoln, Whitman, Adams, and Garfield turned thumbs down on 1033 than voters in Snohomish County, and by a higher proportion.

1033 promised to limit the growth of revenue for public services, and to reduce property taxes. Problem is, those public revenues have fallen sharply this year and continue to fall, while the need for public services, such as K-12 education, community college slots and basic health coverage, continues to rise.

The math doesn’t add up. You can’t provide more services with less money, and that is especially true with people-intensive public services like education and health care. We can’t expect one home health care aide to sprint from one elderly housebound citizen to another and then another and another in a day. To do so leaves these elderly, infirm and dependent citizens without the care and companionship they need and look forward to every day. They become more dismayed and bewildered in the twilight of life, often confounded by simply the chaos of managing and living. That’s not something that registers in Mr. Eyman’s calculus, but it sure seemed to register in the calculus of Eastern Washington voters when they made their choices in this election.

In Snohomish County, voters rejected Initiative 1033 by a 10-point margin. In Eyman’s hometown of Mukilteo, voters soundly rejected his latest measure, 60-40 percent.

But the election wasn’t only about rejection of measures to hobble public services. It was also about increasing funding for these services at the local level. In Mountlake Terrace, Brier and Lynnwood, voters passed levies to increase property taxes to pay for emergency medical services, with “yes” votes ranging between 61 and 85 percent. Voters in the Sno-Isle Library District voted 53-47 percent to increase their taxes to maintain library services in Snohomish and Island counties.

Last week’s vote was one of hope, not of desperation. But this week’s news of an impending $2 billion deficit in the state budget threatens to replace this hope with more cutbacks in public services. Each cut eats away at fundamental public services. Each cut also means that jobs and income are taken away from our public servants who provide these services. When you take someone’s income, he can’t spend much money. In an economy in which 70 percent of economic activity is fueled by consumer spending, destroying jobs, whether they are public or private, is a recipe for a long and deep recession.

So instead of just accepting that we have to make more and more cuts, we should be asking our Legislature to figure out how to maintain public revenues. For example, we could increase the estate tax on estates larger than $5 million. That would bring in $50 million each year. We could end the tax credit for pop syrup and institute a 5-cent tax on soft drinks. This would bring in $140 million a year and also send a market signal to get people to drink less of this stuff that leads to early onset of diabetes, weight gain, and bad health in general. If the Legislature plowed this back into basic health coverage and public health, then we have a win/win situation for our quality of life.

The point is not to paint a complete picture of what we should do to preserve public goods and services, education, and health, but rather to show that it can be done. If the governor and the Legislature decide to do nothing, and just cut, cut, cut, eliminating, for example, the Basic Health Plan, they have learned nothing from the people’s action to reject Initiative 1033.

We don’t want more cuts in vital services. We need them now, more than ever. So Olympia, help us out. That is the message from the timely demise of Initiative 1033.

John Burbank is the executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle (www.eoionline.org). His e-mail address is john@eoionline.org.

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