Some Democrats are whispering the T-word – taxes – as falling state revenues threaten public education and human services that are helping the poor, the sick and abused keep their heads above water.
It’s a conversation that must happen. The September revenue forecast blew a $2 billion hole in what was already a bleak biennial budget. On the chopping block, potentially, is funding for community colleges and state universities that have already been savagely whacked, property-poor school districts and community supervision of dangerous felons.
Thousands of children, domestic violence victims and people with severe mental illnesses or developmental disabilities might simply be cut loose and left adrift – the shortfall is that stark.
There are very few genuine savings in the possible cuts identified so far.
Eliminate outpatient treatment for people with psychiatric illnesses, for example, and they wind up in emergency rooms, jails, Western State Hospital and other places where the cost of dealing with them is much, much higher – and still comes out of the public’s pocketbooks.
Eliminate medical insurance for the working poor and starve the community health clinics, and costs are again shifted to the public through emergency rooms and hospitals.
Many of the programs in jeopardy are the least expensive ways to help people who can’t fend for themselves. With enough imagination and resourcefulness, it may be possible to keep such programs alive within existing revenues. Republican lawmakers, who remain dogmatically opposed to any significant tax increases, should start proposing humane revenue-neutral alternatives.
A tax proposal would have to be approved by Washingtonians at the ballot. Democrats inclined to put one up to a vote in February should be doing their own brainstorming.
In a distressed economy, nearly any tax can do more harm than good. Adding a penny per dollar to the state sales tax, for example, would likely chill commerce – exactly what we don’t need. A broad tax on business would hit precisely the enterprises that create and sustain jobs, as would any measures that effectively penalize successful small business owners and entrepreneurs.
A poorly designed, easily expandable income tax was rejected just last year. The public also rejected a new tax on bottled water, candy and other non-essential consumables – although an equally limited but more carefully targeted measure might be an easier sell.
Any tax package should specify exactly what the taxpayers would get for their money. No games: Voters will quickly spot moves to protect pet programs or constituencies while putting popular services in harm’s way on the ballot.
If Democrats go to the ballot, they’d best abandon any dreams of bringing back the glory days of state spending – and skip the customary populist rhetoric about making the rich “pay their fair share.” That didn’t work last year and it won’t work next year.
The only goal should be a package that – without hurting the economy – raises enough money to prevent a human catastrophe. The citizens of Washington might just be willing to buy that one.