It's finally become clear what people want from government.
Actually, there's two items on the wish list: 1) People want government to do more for them, and 2) people want to pay less.
Perhaps you've noticed this problem. While citizens of our own fair state are forever demanding new and better roads, improved schools, and laws which put more criminals in jail and keep them there longer, they also want reductions in their property tax, sales tax, vehicle fees . . . you name it.
Most politicians have responded to this mixed message with a tactic perfected by grandparents everywhere—selective deafness. Those politicians who choose to hear just the "do more" part, we call Democrats; those who simply heed the call to "pay less" are known as Republicans.
The "do more, pay less" ethic has led to some confusing messages at the ballot box. Two years ago, state voters approved a plan (Referendum 49) to fund a massive road renewal using vehicle license fee revenues. The following year, these same folks voted to reduce their vehicle fees drastically (Initiative 695), so there's no money to spend on the road repairs.
Earlier this month, state residents approved two initiatives mandating that the state funnel more money into education, even as they were also limiting future property tax increases. In short, folks would like the government to spend more money, just as long as they don't ask the taxpayers to provide it.
On the local level, the creation of new cities and the expansion of existing ones has sharply cut the flow of sales tax revenue to King County government. But the residents of these new jurisdictions are unwilling to assume the costs of many services provided by the county. This funding drain, combined with tax cuts approved by voters in the last two state elections, should put the county budget into the red within two years. At least in Seattle, voters have shown themselves willing to pony up for the finer things in life—parks, libraries, schools, opera houses. But the effects of the tax-slashing state initiatives are hitting here, too, as City Council members scramble to patch holes in the city budget.
In Olympia, the budget-writers are preparing for the coming siege. The voters have earmarked a ton of funds for K-12 education improvements, so all other state functions will get less. Teachers at state universities won't get the raises they want, Child Protective Service regulators will continue to face excessive caseloads, and we won't see any improvement to those roads that everybody seems to like but nobody wants to pay for. Every would-be tax-cutter or big spender keeps citing the state's $1 billion budget surplus as if it replenishes itself as you spend it, like some modern-day miracle of the loaves and fishes.
And what's the big populist issue around the state? More tax cuts.
Sure the vote-counting escapades of the last two weeks have been fascinating. But there's a far more vexing question to be addressed than "Who's going to run things?"
It's "How are they going to pay for it?"
Vote for common sense
Washington state needs a hero: So we'll nominate State Representative Dave Schmidt.
The Bothell Republican has already established himself as the voice of common sense in Olympia on the topic of election reform. Now, thanks to our chaotic national election, he just may get some much-deserved support from his colleagues.
Schmidt wants the state to address the growing percentage of permanent absentee voters. "We're approaching the point where about 45 percent of the general election ballot is cast by mail," he says, yet our state clings to the outdated concept that absentee ballots can be posted through Election Day. This means that important statewide contests (most recently, this year's Slade Gorton/Maria Cantwell US Senate race and the Sam Reed/Don Bonker battle for secretary of state) drag on for two weeks after the election without a clear victor.
These vote-counting delays pose even bigger problems in the primary election, with just over six weeks separating Washington state's mid-September primary from the November final election.
Schmidt has two commonsense solutions: Require absentee ballots to be postmarked on or before the Friday preceding the election, and move our primary election to the second week of August. He points out that absentee voters who miss the mailing deadline could simply hand-carry their ballot to the polls. And concerns that a summer primary election could lead to lower turnouts simply haven't panned out in other states.
Given the evidence, it's hard to believe that Schmidt's reforms haven't been instituted; his absentee ballot bill was twice approved by the state House of Representatives but died in the Senate both times. "There's a lot of sacred cows in the Legislature, and tradition is hard to change," he says. But, Schmidt adds, the brutal criticism faced by Florida election regulators from the national media should help convince his colleagues this time around.
"All you've got to do," he says, "is bring up the question, 'What would it be like if the spotlight was on us?'"