Agenda for action in 2013

Values, concerns for our communities this year

The News TribuneJanuary 6, 2013 

Again this year, The News Tribune’s editorial board has identified what we believe should be fundamental priorities for Washington state, this region and our communities.

The agenda below reflects the values and concerns that will guide our commentary through 2013.

At the top is education. With Washington’s economy recovering from five years of distress, this state should finally be able to invest more in its public schools and colleges. The state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision is more than enough reason to expand the opportunities we owe our children and grandchildren.

Our 2013 civic agenda:

FUND EDUCATION

Public education needs a radical rethinking this year.

For decades, the Legislature has been evading its responsibility to fully fund the state’s schools, expanding other programs while forcing school districts to rely on local levies to pay for such basics as textbooks, school nurses and bus drivers.

That’s got to stop, said the Washington Supreme Court last January in its landmark McCleary decision. The court demanded that the Legislature comply with the Washington Constitution, which states that “ample provision” for basic education is the “paramount duty of the state.”

Nor does basic education consist of harried teachers in overcrowded classrooms. As common sense and the court defines it, “ample” means far more the bare bones. Every child, even in poor school districts, must be offered the high-end academic skills needed to succeed in a complex, technology-intense world.

This means the Legislature must appropriate hundreds of millions of dollars more per year to the K-12 system. That’s going to require some very tough choices in Olympia, probably including more taxation.

REFORM EDUCATION

The Supreme Court has no authority to raise taxes or micromanage legislative budgets. Budget-writers are accountable to the voters, which means that the public holds the ultimate power to demand or deny adequate funding for schools.

The public understands that simply dumping more money in an underperforming school system will produce only a more expensive underperforming school system. But Washingtonians can be persuaded to invest more in the system if they see greater accountability in their schools, high academic standards, and science-based teaching and administrative practices.

Voters will pay for results. They won’t pay for the status quo.

PRESERVE HIGHER ED

College opportunity doesn’t fall under the constitutional definition of basic education, but few students will find success in tomorrow’s economy without vocational or academic training beyond high school.

If the state’s founders could have foreseen the 21st century, we’d probably be talking about a K-14 – not a K-12 – system.

In the economic distress of the last five years, the Legislature has cut deeply into the budgets of public colleges. The idea was to increase financial aid at the same time, so that families of limited means would not be frozen out of the system. But tens of thousands of eligible students are being denied need grants, the state’s chief financial aid program.

As lawmakers move to adequately fund the public schools, they must also ensure that high school graduation is a step toward college, not a dead end.

TREAT MENTAL ILLNESS

Untreated psychiatric disorders are often hell on both the sufferers and their families. Unfortunately, it often takes a tragedy before the public takes note.

The South Sound last year saw an appalling string of assaults and killings that might not have happened had their perpetrators received professional therapy and appropriate medication. An example was the Aug. 11 shooting in a Wauna store; three men were hit, and one died.

The suspect, it turned out, was a deeply disturbed woman whose family had been struggling unsuccessfully to get her into treatment.

The state must provide more community-based care. Laws that create ridiculous obstacles to involuntary treatment should be adjusted to reflect reality.

Existing funding is perversely mistargeted. Some of the mentally ill finally get treated in jail after they commit crimes. It would be far less expensive and more humane to treat them outside jail before they commit crimes.

Pierce County could start addressing this by establishing a mental health court, which would divert petty offenders into therapy instead of jail. King, Snohomish, Thurston and Kitsap counties have such courts; it’s time Pierce County had one, too.

WELCOME VETERANS

The South Sound is undergoing a surge of it own right now as thousands of Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers return from Afghanistan.

Roughly 10,000 JBLM troops were routinely deployed during the Afghan and Iraq wars; that number may fall below 1,000 by the end of the year.

The base has already expanded dramatically since 2003; it now hosts 46,000 military personnel, plus dependents, and 12,000 civilian employees.

The influx of troops and military families creates both opportunities and challenges for Pierce and Thurston counties.

In economic terms, the active-duty soldiers and newly discharged veterans will boost retail sales and tax revenues. Their sheer numbers will also stretch social services, schools and colleges, public safety, and the transportation system.

Younger veterans who enlisted after 9/11 have experienced high unemployment. They need jobs and training. Virtually all combat veterans are exposed to extreme stress; many need continuing treatment and the community’s support.

The growth of the base has also dumped thousands of additional cars onto Interstate 5 from Lakewood to Lacey. Traffic relief in this corridor – including public transit – should be priorities for of both the federal government and state Department of Transportation.

CUT GOVERNMENT OVERHEAD

The combination of stalled revenue and relentless health care inflation turns government budgeting into a zero-sum game. The more cities, counties, fire districts and other agencies spend on administration and compensation, the less they have to spend on the public services they exist to provide.

The City of Tacoma is the poster child of foolish spending. Its leaders handed out generous raises and fat benefits for years, creating a crisis that is now forcing layoffs of police officers, firefighters, librarians and the unsung stalwarts who patch the city’s potholes.

To avoid such debacles, policymakers must be willing to buck demanding constituencies, including public unions. Vital services must override the interests of pressure groups and campaign supporters.

FOSTER OPEN GOVERNMENT

Ensuring that government business is done in plain sight is crucial to the public welfare. The voters’ ability to make informed decisions is a foundation of democratic self-government.

Public officials evade scrutiny in many ways – such as holding meetings with minimal public notice, deliberating behind closed doors and manufacturing new exemptions to open records laws. Regimes of secrecy are prone to corruption, arrogance and self-serving decisions.

The state Legislature has been remiss in not operating under the same public disclosure rules that apply to local governments.

Washington’s incoming governor, Jay Inslee, has the opportunity to run a more open administration than his predecessor, Chris Gregoire. Her expansive notion of executive privilege, especially, has kept important internal documents hidden from view.

When disclosure decisions come down to judgment calls, public agencies should always err on the side of openness.

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