In a park in downtown Olympia you’ll find a statue of John Rankin Rogers, who served as Washington’s governor from 1897-1901. One of Governor Rogers’ guiding principles – a principal that should be guiding our legislature as we make budget decisions – is engraved at the foot of the statue: “I would make it impossible for the covetous and avaricious to utterly impoverish the poor. The rich can take care of themselves.”
Governor Rogers was a true populist. In 1895, when he was serving in our state legislature prior to being Governor, he authored and marshaled into law the Barefoot Schoolboy Law. This law, the first of its kind in the nation, provided for an elementary education to every child in the state regardless of the economic status of the child’s family or community. It was designed to equalize the disparity between wealthy districts that could afford adequate education programs, and the poor, mostly rural areas which could afford only limited educational programs if any at all. The Barefoot Schoolboy Law created a tax that ensured state funding on a per-child basis. This method of providing state-funded public education to all children regardless of their economic status was later instituted in many states throughout our nation.
I walk by the statue of Governor Rogers on my way to work sometimes while I’m living in this soggy town during the legislative session, and I wonder how Governor Rogers would address our current budget crisis if he were in office today. By obligating the state to provide for an education for all young students in our state and implementing a tax to pay for this program, the Barefoot Schoolboy Law was the fundamental and progressive shift in the status quo of its day. If he were here today, Governor Rogers would probably recommend a similarly progressive advancement to get us through our current crisis.
I think Governor Rogers would share my strong belief that one of the main purposes of good government is to act as a system of pooling our financial resources to pay for necessities upon which we all depend, such as education, healthcare, social service programs, public safety, environmental protection, and roads and public transportation. Government should support the prosperity of businesses when it’s for the common good, and regulate business and industry so it doesn’t exploit people. We should be able to rely on our state government to sustain our public welfare by offering programs that take care of people when they are vulnerable. I think Governor Rogers would be appalled at the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor in our state and nation. The poor have become more impoverished, and instead of letting the rich “take care of themselves,” we’re taking care of them by giving them increased tax breaks.
Our state has come a long way since Governor Rogers’ era, in that the state takes responsibility for funding many more educational, healthcare, social service, public safety and environmental programs than in did in the 1890’s. For example, there was nothing like our Basic Health Program back then – in fact, few states in the current era have such a progressive program. But there still seems to be a major lack of commitment to adequately funding these programs, and a major disconnect in many people’s mind regarding the fact that their taxes are necessary to pay for the services upon which we all depend. I strongly believe that the public and the legislators they elect to represent them need to make a stronger progressive commitment to funding critical public services.
We need a populist progressive uprising to get us through our current crisis; instead, what has most influenced our state’s ability to pay for public services in the past decade is an uprising of the anti-tax masses. This has resulted in the gradual de-funding of public programs like our Basic Health Program (BHP). At its height, BHP provided health insurance for more than 150,000 low-income people; cuts in recent years reduced the total number of enrollees to 57,000, with 130,000 on the waiting list. The most recent supplemental budget for 2009-2011 (the current biennium) passed by the Legislature this session restricts eligibility to those who are also eligible for Medicaid, which will result in at least 15,000 individuals losing coverage. The Governor’s proposed budget for the 2011-2013 biennium eliminates BHP entirely. The proposed 2011-2013 Operating Budget just released by the House of Representatives proposes to preserve BHP at the level provided for in the supplemental budget, meaning that less than 40,000 people will have coverage. (It’s estimated that at least 375,000 people would be eligible for BHP if the eligibility requirements were the same as they were in 2008.)
A renewed progressive commitment to public services needs to include support of a progressive tax system. Currently, our tax system is the most regressive in the nation, in that middle- and low-income people pay a much larger percentage of their income in taxes than do wealthy folks. (The poorest 10 percent of Washingtonians pay more than 17 percent of their income in taxes; the wealthiest folks pay less than 3 percent.) In large part, this is due to our excessive sales tax. Our state relies on sales tax for about 56 percent of our total state revenue. Sales tax revenue is notoriously vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy: in times like these, people buy less stuff.
Instituting a state income tax for individuals who make over $200,000 and couples who make over $400,000 would have been a fundamental shift in our status quo, because it would have drastically increased our ability to adequately fund critical public programs and created a more reliable and progressive system of taxation. I’ve been advocating for a state income tax for 14 years in the legislature, and was sorely disappointed when the recent initiative calling for an income tax went down in flames in November, thereby setting back the cause several more years. I’m disappointed that progressive Washingtonians and legislators haven’t been able to marshal the support necessary to implement an income tax. Anti-tax advocates have convinced people that any tax is a bad tax, and progressives have failed to convince the majority of people that a more progressive tax system (including an income tax) would give many of them what they really want: to pay less taxes.
As a result, our state’s ability to make progressive advancements has been severely curtailed by anti-tax initiatives. The Legislature can’t institute any new taxes this year – progressive or otherwise – unless we can either pass it with a 2/3 majority of the Legislature or send it to the voters as a Referendum. This includes closing tax loopholes. The voter’s recent history of voting against any new taxes has made many legislators understandably weary about sending any tax increases to the voters.
Still, there’s a core group of legislators, including myself, who are proposing a referendum to close tax loopholes in order to raise revenue to pay for vital state programs. I’ve written about these proposals in other blog posts (Budget Woes All Around and We must work together to fix our state’s antiquated tax system), and there will be more proposals introduced this week. Closing tax exemptions may not be the type of fundamental shift that Governor Rogers would recommend, but it looks like our only option this year to raise revenue to save state programs. We’ll do our best to close tax exemptions, but none of us are expecting an easy time of it.
Whether or not we succeed in closing some tax exemptions this year, all Washington progressives need to forcefully advocate for progressive change. We need a populist progressive movement that overcomes the strength and endurance of the Tea Party and anti-tax activists. Like Governor Rogers, we all need to lead the way to a more sane and progressive Washington.