Candidates vying for tough job in next session

Contributing WriterMay 14, 2014 

Candidates begin filing to run for legislative office this week. They’re signing on for a summer of fund-raising, doorbelling, candidate forums, and attempts to make a media splash in a good way and not in a bad way.

A campaign consultant I knew would cite Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “man in the arena” speech.

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly,” Roosevelt said.

The rhetoric may sound old-fashioned and high-minded in this overlong age of cynicism, but it still resonates with those neighbors of ours willing to climb into the arena, to take the risk. The monetary reward is meager, the hours long, and the promotional opportunities scarce.

Sure, there are preeners and schemers, interest group water carriers, and those who just want to be famous in their hometowns. But forget the crack about 99 percent of politicians giving the rest a bad name. The majority of candidates genuinely want to get something done, to improve the community and expand opportunity.

Along the way, some of them can do a great deal of damage. Wanting to do good is not the same thing as doing good.

The coming legislative session — call it the McCleary session — will be the most challenging in decades. It begins with the state Supreme Court order to increase education funding, using lawmakers’ own standards of funding adequacy. Most analysts agree that the state will be expected to boost spending $3.5 billion by the 2017-19 biennium. The Legislature’s accounting to the Court last month reported process not progress. Next year, lawmakers will have to do more than talk about what they might do.

It’ll take more than closing loopholes, demanding accountability, or squeezing other state spending. Few candidates will be experts — it’s a complex problem — but all should be able to demonstrate they recognize the seriousness of the challenge.

Look for some creativity. The Court decision criticized the state’s overreliance on local property taxes to fund basic education, which is the state’s duty. The funding balance is wrong. One concept under consideration addresses the issue by raising the state property tax rate and offsetting the increase by reducing the local levy. It’s a way to generate sustainable new state revenue and provide additional levy equalization across the state. Ask your candidates about it.

Lawmakers must also contend with the state’s transportation backlog. Over the last two years we saw plenty of drama, rumored special sessions, and compromises that never gelled. Transportation leaders generally agree on the need for some $12 billion in new funding, paid for with a gas tax increase of around 11 cents per gallon phased in over several years.

A major roadblock: Senate Republicans wanted to eliminate the sales tax on road construction projects, stretching transportation dollars but reducing general fund revenue. House Democrats opposed them. Negotiations were complicated by the governor’s refusal to rule out an executive order imposing a low carbon fuel standard that would further increase gas prices.

In its 2013 report card for Washington, the Seattle Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers finds congestion has worsened, increased efficiency has reduced the per mile revenue produced by the gas tax, and road conditions have deteriorated. Lawmakers cannot defer another year. Candidates should be able to say where they stand on transportation funding.

Finally, legislators must act to increase economic opportunity and income mobility. Research conducted by the Boston Consulting Group for the Washington Roundtable finds that the gap between the skills required by employers and the qualifications of applicants accounts for 25,000 unfilled jobs here. Preparing employees through targeted workforce training and higher education programs better geared to the marketplace could provide thousands of Washingtonians a financially secure, productive future.

Too much of the recession lingers. Improving the public schools, funding transportation and assuring that people have the skills they need to succeed will contribute to a stronger economy and growing opportunity. All this must be accomplished with an awareness of budget constraints and responsible tax policy. Make sure your candidates have answers before they win your vote.

Bainbridge Island resident Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. Email him at rsdavis@simeonpartners.com.

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