Difficult Conversations

As appearing in The Catalyst 05/12:

What does growth mean to Washington state?

As this issue of The Catalyst demonstrates, growth is a word that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. But to treat a discussion of this term lightly is to tread dangerously. In the realm of politics for example, how we define growth has important policy implications; it shapes who advances in society, who stagnates, and who is left behind. As the effects of the financial crisis drag on and the jagged and uneven growth associated with capitalism becomes increasingly clear, never has this sort of conversation been more important.

Since the 2008 crisis, policymakers across the state, the nation, and the world have responded to increasing fiscal deficits by slashing government spending across the board. Even here in Washington, programs that support healthy people, a healthy environment, and economic opportunity are being reduced or eliminated outright in order to balance our budget. Somewhere along the line we lost sight of what “growth” should look like. Discussion of growth has shifted from what is good for future prosperity to what is most politically feasible.

Look at our budget. The way a state manages its budget tells you a lot about its priorities and values. Look at education. It was only a generation ago that there was a consensus that investments in higher education were good for society as a whole. Today, students in Washington State are saddled on average with over $22,000 dollars in debt (approximately $26,607 for an SU grad matriculating with debt in 2010 according to data collected by the advocacy group Institute for College Access and Success)[1] The future wage earners and job creators of our state are facing more difficulty and less opportunity than ever before.

Publicly backed higher education, once taken for granted as a stepping stone for the lower and middle classes is increasingly under threat. Student debt has exceeded all other forms of debt in the nation, and if projections hold true, the average cost of attending a public university will have doubled in the past 15 years, far outstripping inflation.[2]

Such topics continue to be difficult conversations at the legislative level. While the state legislature avoided additional cuts to K-12 and college education in the 2012 budget, it did so at the expense of a host of other social services. Rather than develop a stable and healthy source of revenue to fund programs that will ensure long-term growth, legislators have consistently returned to cuts, or promising to close vague loopholes.

It is an uneven balancing act at best. As the Washington State Budget and Policy Center reports, since 2009 over 10.6 billion dollars have been cut from the state budget compared to only 600 million dollars in revenue added—cuts have outnumbered the amount of revenue 17 to 1.[3]

Only in the wake of a Supreme Court decision in January that found the state is not fulfilling its constitutional mandate to amply support public education did outgoing governor Gregoire go on record advocating for additional sources of revenue for education.[4] While the Supreme Court decision promised to hold the government accountable for the implementation of significant reforms by 2018, the recently passed state budget gives little reason for hope that change will come anytime soon. The two contenders for the governor’s seat in November, Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Rob McKenna, both oppose any new tax revenues.[5] Can we really blame them?  It was only a year ago that voters soundly rejected a tax initiative on the wealthiest in the state that would have avoided sharper budget cuts. Until the voters and politicians of Washington collectively recognize the implications of a “cut to growth” strategy, we may be faced with a dark road ahead.

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