K2 Views

6/20/2016 – How our state budget is hurting local communities

First the good news, the state Department of Ecology recently awarded $227 million in grants to local governments for high-priority water quality improvement projects.

One of my district’s small towns, Normandy Park, received about $1.4 million for two important projects to help restore Walker Creek and protect Normandy Creek, and they are thrilled to have been awarded those grants from the Storm water Financial Assistance Program.

But our state Department of Ecology’s budget has been reduced significantly by the steep decline in revenue from the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA). MTCA revenue is pegged to the price of a barrel of oil and now oil prices are about half what they used to be.

The plight of the Department has been badly exacerbated because general fund dollars to administer this critical state agency has essentially been replaced with MTCA dollars. This MTCA “sweep” began during the “Great Recession” in 2010 when state revenues fell off a cliff and the budget had to be slashed by 30%.

But six years later, the practice is no longer necessary or sustainable. With the decline in MTCA revenues, we are now forcing Ecology to take huge cuts in water quality and toxic cleanup projects that used to be funded by MTCA revenue. Since 2012, when the Republicans took over the Senate budget process, a total of $371 million in MTCA dollars have been swept out of projects and into the state general fund.

And with the current demands for full funding of basic education under the Supreme Court’s “McCleary” ruling, the cutbacks to local government will likely continue. So here’s what’s actually going on under the Republican Senate budget approach. In order to avoid tax increases, the budgeteers approach is to sweep money out of important programs that have had stable sources of revenue as a way to backfill the budget deficits and avoid any tax or fee fights.  In Biblical terms, one could say they are “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Many of these sweeps have hit local communities especially hard.

For example, the Public Works Account was virtually eliminated by the 2016 supplemental budget, and only won a reprieve with an important gubernatorial veto of the $154 million cut to the fund.

But since 2012, the Public Works Account has been swept of $746 million, with that money swept into the state’s general fund for day to day operations.

The Public Works Account is a successful 30 year revolving fund that has never had a default and has helped hundreds of local governments build basic infrastructure. But the revenues that keep the fund growing, from portions of the Public Utility Tax (PUT) and the Real Estate Excise Tax (REET), were also diverted into the general fund for the operating budget.

The Senate Republicans proposed budget also eliminated the fire insurance premium distributions to local governments, and originally included elimination of funding for the Municipal Research Service, a helpful resource for small towns and communities that don’t have the staff to research complex questions.

Fortunately, in the end amendments and gubernatorial vetoes stalled these cuts, but no one should be surprised to see them back again next year if the political landscape doesn’t change.

Yet another example is the liquor tax. When Washington voters passed the liquor privatization initiative in 2011, a major selling point was that liquor revenues would flow back to local governments for such things as local police services.

Since 2012, the Republican led budget writers have diverted $151 million in liquor tax revenues into the state operating budget and out of local budgets.

Unless we face revenue reality, local towns and cities across the state will have to find new ways, that don’t count on state support, to make ends meet for everything from public works, public safety and environmental clean ups without counting on state revenue support.

Although the “McCleary” Supreme Court decision on basic education funding compels us to fully fund education, I think we must find solutions to this crisis that will not put the citizens in our local communities at risk with failing water and sewer systems, inadequate police services and unacceptable environmental harm.

It should start with an honest conversation about revenue realities. If the state budget is going to suck up every penny, with little to no distribution to our local communities, then we need those small town mayors and city council members prepared to cut their budgets even more for police, fire, water, sewer, parks and recreation.

Or we could, and in my view should, consider collaborating on new ways to reach our shared goals of full funding for basic education and fair funding for our local cities and towns that help make our communities great places for our citizens to live and work.  We’re all in this together!

-K2

6/2/2016 – Building Capital – Travels with Chipper

John Steinbeck is one of my favorite writers, and while Grapes of Wrath may be his most influential book, he also shared his humor and humanity with his American travelogue, Travels with Charley. Charley was his wife’s French poodle with whom Steinbeck crossed the country.

Since I’ve been working on the capital budget, and hearing about all the interesting projects organizations and people propose to build around the state with our state tax dollars, I’ve had a growing curiosity about what exactly we’re building.  So I thought I might hit the road and take a look myself.  Since I have a rescue dog named Chipper (who is definitely not a purebred) we’ve decided to include Chipper in our excursions.  We’re making him a kind of “mascot” for Building Capital, the official title of our productions.  And we’re making a series of videos to explain the story behind the projects.

We can call this video series “Building Capital” but personally I call it “Travels with Chipper.”  My little fella enjoys traveling in the car, and is always interested in the scenery.  We’ve got a big list of interesting visits ahead.  From the Pateros water system tower that was heavily damaged in last year’s wildfires, to the renovation of acute mental health cottage at Echo Glen Children’s Center, from the Mother Joseph Academy roof replacement in Vancouver to the Soos Creek Hatchery renovation.  Dozens of big and small projects are underway, and they will contribute to our economy and create family wage jobs while improving our environment, our communities and our critical education and health services.

One of the biggest parts of our capital budget is for education—our public schools, colleges and universities.  I’ve often wondered if citizens would be so cynical about their taxes and government if they were aware of the tens of millions of dollars our state legislature appropriates for our school districts, skills centers, community colleges and 4-year institutions.  Our school construction assistance program distributed more than $300 million to school districts, and another $200 million will be awarded for lower class size grants to qualified districts during this budget.  Perhaps we should post a sign on each building that reveals the actual tax dollars it takes to build and maintain buildings used by more than a million students every year.

And the budget decisions we make determine how many soccer and baseball fields for youth are built.  Just in the last biennial budget, we appropriated $7.35 million for local youth recreation.  Then there are the Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCA facilities and of course our wonderful state parks, where we are spending nearly $53 million to replace electrical supply systems, sewage systems, water supply and even preserving historic World War 1 facilities at Fort Flagler park.  We’re even investing more than $2 million to expand the fantastic Goldendale Observatory, which I suggest you should put on your bucket list to see for yourself.

Another major part of the capital budget is critical environmental clean-up, restoration and preservation.  In the last budget we appropriated about $45 million on Puget Sound restoration, preservation and salmon recovery programs.  One of my favorite investments is the $35.5 million we are spending on a new approach to flood threats.  A pilot project in Orting has shown the value of creating floodplains instead of channeling flood waters through ever-higher levee walls on rivers that tend to flood.  Of course when a catastrophic flood or fire occurs, the capital budget is always tapped, whether it’s in the Chehalis basin or the Okanogan.  Climate change is a huge challenge too, whether it’s to maintain sufficient water supply in the Yakima basin or preserve the shoreline on the Pacific coast.

But the local projects shouldn’t be overlooked.  No matter how small, each one is important to the town, a non-profit organization or community groups and local leaders who are trying to preserve, restore and build for the future.  All aboard for the Ellensburg Train Station!

I do hope you will check out our new video series “Building Capital,” aka “Travels with Chipper”, as we post them on my web page and share them on YouTube.

-K2

3/8/16 – That ‘Ol Shell Game

An ancient confidence trick is still in use, not only on the streets of New York City, but in Olympia this year where budget sweeps are reaching deeper and deeper into every budget crevasse. The sleight of hand swindle that uses three walnut shells and a pea is known as a “short-con” because it is quick and easy to pull off.

With only a couple of days left in the session, we may be able to stop the tricksters from pulling off yet another shell game with the budget. I have never seen the House and Senate operating budgets so far apart from each other this late in a short session, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this session end without a supplemental budget. That may not be a bad thing. The cliché, ”The Devil is in the Details,” is apropos for the current Senate budget.

Seven years ago, when the “Great Recession” hit with the force of a hurricane, the Democratic majority made huge cuts to the budget and swept major program revenues into the general fund in order to save basic education and basic health services. The sweeps were supposed to be “one time only” events.

But while the budget crises of the Great Recession are over, the practice of sweeping every possible source of funding into the general fund has become a very bad habit. The current Republican majority in the Senate will apparently take any dedicated fund it can to avoid raising revenues in traditional ways.

They raise revenues by “sweeping,” the funds and revenue streams from dedicated programs into the general fund. And like every shell game they divert our attention while making the moves.

For example, health professions establish a license fee for their members of the profession to pay for the programs that oversees practitioners and disciplines providers who are found guilty of unprofessional practice. The fee pays for the legal processes to police their profession, and the Department of Health manages the various O2G funds, in a pay-as-you-go-manner. This year the Senate budget “sweeps” a half million dollars from those O2G funds. Those lost funds will have to be made up with higher professional fees, a kind of hidden tax.

And that’s just a start! Look at this list:

  • Real Estate Commission Account, $500,000 swept to general fund
  • Wa. Real Estate Research Account, $500,000 swept to general fund
  • Professional Engineers Account, $500,000 swept to general fund
  • Personnel Services Fund, $500,000 swept to general fund
  • OFM Labor Relations Services Account, $1,000,000 swept to general fund
  • Washington Housing Trust Account, $1,000,000 swept to general fund
  • Savings Incentive Account, $1,071,000 swept to general fund
  • Performance Audit of Government account, 2016 and 2017, $10,000,000 swept to general fund
  • Dedicated Marijuana Account, $14,000,000 swept to general fund
  • Aerospace Training Student Loan Account, $2,000,000 swept to general fund
  • Health Professionals Loan Repayment and Scholarship Program Account, $1,000,000 swept to general fund.

And that $50+ million in fund sweeps is just the chump change.

The Senate budget also sweeps up all the reserve funds of the Regional Support Networks that provide local mental health services, amounting to a transfer of $43.6 million. This proposed “transfer” comes at a time when we are proposing to provide more, not less, local mental health services.

The Senate budget sweeps the loan repayments from the Public Works Account, a program that used to provide low interest loans to local water and sewer districts. But the latest sweep essentially bankrupts the entire program by taking $10 million. The program used to be funded out of the general fund, and from revenues generated by a portion of the public utility tax (PUT) and the real estate excise tax (REET), but all the revenues from both the REET and PUT now goes directly into the general fund.

Cities are protesting the diversion of liquor tax revenues, amounting to another $2,800,000 this year, and after several previous years of other sweeps the cities feel under siege.

The Senate budget continues to sweep revenues from the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA) into the general fund and out of the capital budget where the revenues would normally be used on projects to clean up storm water and toxic waste sites. Instead $40+ million is diverted to pay for the administrative operations of the Department of Ecology, operations that used to be funded out of the general fund.

By transferring every possible dollar out of dedicated accounts available revenue streams into the general fund, the Republican majority can continue to claim that they see no need for new revenues. They’ve consumed the seed corn for dozens of programs, so they’ve also achieved their ideological goal to reduce the size of government. And no one is blowing the whistle on this shell game. It’s like the classic “short-con” used by the swindlers who will entertain you while they steal you blind.

-K2

3/1/16 – Time for a new MOB?

Last week, I joined a long time Republican Representative as a host for a “box lunch” gathering for all the female state lawmakers in Washington state. Our state’s Legislature used to have the highest proportion of female members in the nation, at just over 41%, but ever since that high point, that stat has fallen.   We’re at under 30% now. And although Republicans have reached historic levels of participation by women lawmakers in our state, only two Republican women joined us at that lunch.

Maybe they were too busy, or maybe they suspected a hidden agenda, but the Democrats outnumbered the Republicans ten to one at that little event. Somehow it seems, my Republican colleagues simply don’t seem to see issues through a gender lens.

I guess that’s ok if you find the status quo comfortable and you don’t fret about the fact that, at the current rate of progress, our daughters will never earn equal pay for equal work in their lifetimes, according to research by the IWPR. (www.iwpr.org)

Nevertheless progress is possible. We have an impressive group of active members who are working hard to bring issues of equity, equal pay and opportunity forward. So far we have seen some positive momentum for the Pregnant Worker Fairness Act, SB 6149, which has survived the Senate and is working its way through the House.

But we should do more. Last week, the House bill to eliminate wage secrecy policies and establish equal pay died in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. A last minute Republican effort to “fix” the bill with an amendment would have actually taken away current rights of workers to appeal to the NLRB. But the issue won’t go away and we can do better!

But not this year, not with this state Senate.  Unfortunately too many of my colleagues tell their constituents and their local editorial boards that they support equal pay and fair treatment for women, and sometimes they even say they support reproductive choice. But when it comes time to make the slightest effort to move any of these policies forward, they’re nowhere to be found. They support their caucus gatekeepers who stop the bills from passing.

Party loyalty seems to reign supreme on these issues.

This is becoming an issue because my friends across the aisle have done a marvelous job of recruiting new members to the Legislature who are female. Indeed in the state Senate now, we have the highest number of Republican women members in state history. Numbers count, but actions count more.

It would be terrific to have one of my colleagues from across the aisle prime legislation to help working women and their families have more job security and workplace supports. It would be great if they would just sign onto bills as a co-sponsor to show at least moral support. Oddly, the only bipartisan co-sponsors of my pregnancy accommodation bill, SB 6149, are four Republican men. Men? Where are the women?

One step could be the creation of a bi-partisan Women’s Caucus in the Legislature. Years ago, when I was brand new to Olympia, I was introduced to the MOB—which was a loose group of women legislators from both parties and both houses who were not afraid to call themselves members of the MOB. (Which I was told stood for “Mean Old Bitches”). They had battled their way through gender barriers in the 1980’s and 90’s to win election despite the “good ‘ol boys” club and they had no intention of “playing nice” once they achieved public office. Their names became legend–Helen Sommers, Maryann Mitchell, Shirley Hankins and Ruth Fisher among them.

Maybe it’s time to form a new MOB.

-K2

2/23/16 – Beyond the numbers, budget decisions have real impact

To some people, budgets are “just numbers,” and they really have no interest in the details. I used to share that disinterest, and focused on policy that seemed like it could change the world. Policy matters, but money does too. A case in point: When I passed my paid family and medical leave insurance plan bill in 2007, Governor Gregoire signed it into law. But when the “Great Recession” hit a year later, the funding was cut. The law was never implemented because we didn’t have the budget numbers we needed to implement it. Hundreds of new moms and dads have had to choose between their paycheck and their new babies since then. These number matter!

The “Great Recession” took out many programs in budget cuts that amounted to nearly one-third of our state’s operating budget. It was a blood-letting that I hope and pray never to see again. But the recession has been over for at least three years now, and it is past time to restore the cuts.

Example: Western State Hospital

Take the example of Western State Hospital, an institution that has 170 fewer mental health workers today than it had in 2008, according to the Office of Financial Management (OFM). The recent court orders and threats of federal funding cuts are a direct result of too few staff for this huge psychiatric hospital in Lakewood. Our other state psychiatric hospital is much smaller; Eastern State Hospital has not had similar reductions in beds and staffing that Western has suffered. Not surprisingly, Eastern State is not experiencing the turmoil and threats Western faces. And not only staff vacancies are causing this crisis—it is almost impossible to hire or retain qualified psychiatric staff when the pay and benefits at the state are so much lower than in comparable jobs.

Example: South King Sewer

Here’s another example: A local sewer district in South King County reports that e-coli bacteria counts from failing septic tanks are rising to the level of an immediate risk to public health. That these drain fields are shedding hazardous e-coliform bacteria into a tributary that runs through a public park and a public school and drains into the Duwamish River should ring alarm bells. One might ask, why hasn’t this little sewer district installed sewer pipes and taken care of this problem? It has a largely low income population so big rate increases and sewer fees are not a realistic option. In times past, this sewer district would have applied for a loan.

But the source of such loans is pretty much shut down. Our Public Works Trust Fund was “swept,” emptied of funds, and its sources of revenues were diverted into the operating budget during the panic of the “Great Recession.” This sewer district could have accessed low interest loans in years past, but the Public Works Board is no longer able to offer new loans. So the sewer district applied for a loan through the Department of Ecology’s Centennial Clean Water Fund. Guess what’s happened to that fund? It’s empty too.

Example: MTCA

Our state’s Model Toxics Clean-Up Act account (MTCA) was created by voters in an initiative passed in 1988. It funds toxic clean-ups and clean water and air programs, but since the “Great Recession” much of its revenues have also been diverted into the general operating budget. Efforts to restore the MTCA program to actually pay for clean-ups and clean air and water programs have so far failed. The recession may have ended–but the “emergency measures” taken in panic of 2008 have not.

Budget watchers can point to many other examples of “sweeps” never restored and revenue diversions never ended. Our current state general fund is filled with these gimmicks, and in my view it is past time to restore the integrity of our state budget. I understand that once the money that has been swept and diverted is restored, our budget will come up short, and education is the biggest budget item that would have to be funded in some other way. My Republican colleagues are proud of their investments in education over the last two years, and claim they did it with no need for any new revenue. They simply kept sweeping and diverting every revenue stream that had been sucked up during the crisis of the “Great Recession” six years ago. This has gone on too long.  

It’s a kind of “bait and switch” approach that’s simply a desperate attempt of avoid facing the fact that our current system doesn’t provide the revenues necessary to pay for public education and all our other obligations, whether it is for staffing at Western State Hospital or sewer district loans to clean up dangerous e coli contamination.

The time to take the steps forward to restore integrity to all of our budgets and programs has arrived.  It doesn’t have to happen all at once, but we need to start taking the first steps to return to normal operations. We can’t keep robbing Peter to pay Paul and not expect a dead reckoning one of these days. Let’s not wait for another outrage at Western State or a child suffering a devastating e-coli infection after splashing in a local stream.

-K2

2/16/16 – There is something happening here…

We’ve seen the correlation between zip code and educational achievement for some time. Now we’re beginning to see the correlations between life longevity and local areas. We’ve understood that rich people live longer than poor people, but the gap between “them” and “us” seems to be widening faster, and it puts our notions of “we’re all in this together,” at risk.

Just last week, the state issued its survey on health disparities and the graphic information puts into stark contrast the causes of death for Washingtonians in each of the 49 legislative districts. It is not surprising, but still distressing, that my district ranked poorly, with people living in the 33rd legislative district having a significantly shorter life expectancy that the state average. To see the report in full, just click here.

What is especially concerning is that the residents in my 33rd district are dying at a much higher rate from preventable health conditions, including hitting the 2nd highest ranking in the state for deaths from influenza and pneumonia. My neighbors are not dying from smoking or diabetes, suicide or car accidents, they are dying at a higher-than-state-average rate from what is termed “amenable” deaths, fatalities that would normally be considered preventable. Just 5 miles north of my district, and 5 miles east, the picture changes dramatically. So is zip code now destiny for health status?

Four years ago, when I chaired the Senate Health Committee, I noted that although efforts to improve global health conditions were laudable, we were seeing some “third world” type health problems in our own back yards. One response was the “Global to Local” initiative in the SeaTac area, a small effort to train and connect community health workers with some of our local immigrant communities. But it appears that larger forces are at work.

In 2013, a study of census data by a University of Washington researcher found that women’s life expectancy had stagnated or declined in 45 percent of counties in the US between 1985 and 2010. This was at a time when average life expectancy for Americans actually rose by about four years. The study found the largest disparity seemed to occur in rural counties.

Last November, a major study found that middle aged white males had higher death rates than in the past made headlines. Here’s a link to that study.

But below the fold, in the details of the data, the Urban Institute showed that the average increase in age specific mortality rates for whites ages 45 to 54 was more than three times higher for women than for men. The mortality rate among women increased by 26.8 deaths per 100,000 people, which the rate for men increased by 7.7 deaths. While men are still dying at a younger age than women, the mortality rate increase of recent years is lower for men than women. That is a dramatic change in trends for our country, and indeed it appears to be distinct for the population of the United States. No other developed nation has seen this reduction in longevity, much less the larger decline in women’s longevity. Something is seriously wrong here.

Oddly the statistics don’t show the same kinds of declines for other ethnic groups in our country. While there remains a gap between the longevity of African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics compared to the white population, the gap is actually smaller because of the decline of longevity for whites, both men and women.

It’s a puzzle, and no one has a definitive answer as to why. The standard possibilities of drug and alcohol abuse, prescription drug over use, and tobacco use are offered, with no actual data or evidence to back up that speculation. So I will offer a theory that I suggest has as much validity as the drugs/alcohol/tobacco explanations.

My suggestion is: Stress.

The stress of racism has long been suspected as a cause for the poorer health results of pregnant African American women and their babies. Despite controlling for life conditions such as income, education and health care coverage, the birth outcomes for African American women remain stubbornly lower on most every measure of healthy births.

I simply wonder whether the incredibly stress filled lives of American workers is creating this anomaly now in these longevity statistics. Stress creates hormonal changes, and long-term stress may be creating the need to self-medicate by using drugs, alcohol and tobacco. The lack of paid family leave, pregnancy accommodations or paid sick leave add to the stressful juggling act working families struggle with every year.

We all give homage to the American Dream that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be able to have a decent life. The sense of loss for those halcyon days when a man could work one job and support his family, buy a house and retire in dignity is widespread. Job insecurity, lower wages, fewer benefits and the very real fear that our children won’t do as well as we have seems to have eaten into the fabric of our middle class communities. I look at the statistics for my suburban district, and I sense my constituents fear and anxiety in so many meetings and so many e-mails, and I wonder. Is our current American life killing us?

 

-K2

2/9/16 – Acknowledging Alzheimer’s

 

I give heartfelt thanks to my parents and grandparents for giving me the heritage of good genes. Is there anything more accidental than inheriting a troubling health history–one that includes the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s?  So many families struggle with the disease that no one wants to acknowledge. Diagnosis is delayed too often when families fear there is little they can do.

Alzheimer’s is the third leading cause of death in our state, and 107,000 Washingtonians are living with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, with projections that the diagnosis will continue to grow rapidly. That’s why I was so thrilled to sponsor our new law creating a state Alzheimer’s plan with a working group of public and private stakeholders who undertook a year’s worth of town meetings and strategizing.  Their proposed plan is ambitious and comprehensive.

But the best news we’ve seen in years is the recently adopted federal budget, which not only included a substantial increase for National Institute of Health brain research but also an unprecedented NIH professional judgment budget proposal for fiscal year 2017 to annually update progress on efforts to prevent Alzheimer’s and related dementias by 2025. This is called a “bypass budget” because it will be directly transmitted to the President and Congress without the modifications of the usual federal budget process.   Only HIV/AIDS and cancer have received this special budget attention that focuses research to discover new treatments and cures.   This is fantastic!

Current clinical research on Alzheimer’s is underwhelming at best, with only seven open Alzheimer’s therapy studies registered nationwide.  By contrast, there are more than 40 HIV/AIDS trials, and some 500 clinical cancer trials underway.  With the new federal budget direction, this should soon change.   It can’t be too soon.

Scientific advancement is hard. It took years for focused attention and funding to find successful AIDS therapy protocols. Childhood leukemia has been nearly vanquished after years of government funded research, increasing survival rates to more than 90 percent. Now we need to achieve that kind of biomedical progress for Alzheimer’s.   We can’t wait because Alzheimer’s is the most expensive disease in American, costing more than both cancer and heart disease. Nearly 20 percent of Medicare spending now goes to patients with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

Our state Alzheimer’s Disease Working Group (ADWG) strategic plan aims to change the stigma attached to dementia by replacing feelings of fear and disengagement and creating a sense of hope and empowerment.   Significant improvements in early diagnosis and statewide coordination of information, including best practices and available services are also top goals for the working group. All of these worthy goals will be easier to achieve when enhanced research and more clinical trials are underway.   A miracle cure may not be found, but coordinated and comprehensive research will greatly improve clinical treatments for Alzheimer’s patients and their families.

We must not forget the families who bear the brunt of dealing with “the long good-by” of Alzheimer’s. Family caregivers often report feeling isolated and powerless as they try to provide a safe, supportive home for their loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s. It is often exhausting and stressful, and we need to create a network to support the strong and brave spouses and family members who every day face the challenges of maintaining their loved one in the family home.

I have a wonderful neighbor whose husband is in his third year of memory loss. She cannot leave him home alone for a minute, and while he is physically healthy, she is burdened by endless hours of care without much respite. Her own health will suffer eventually if we can’t get her more support. As a state we must do all we can to create the support groups for families and access to respite services for caregivers in order to maintain these incredible families who provide countless,, priceless unpaid services to thousands of Washingtonians with Alzheimer’s.   When I give thanks for my good fortune of good genes, I also offer my deepest gratitude to all the families who provide for their parents and spouses and family members with Alzheimer’s.

-K2

2/2/16 – Voters Need a Reason to Act

I traveled out of state to visit my family during the general election week in 2015. I confess I just didn’t want to witness another set of stinging defeats for friends and allies I had supported. My instinct told me they were in serious trouble two weeks before the election, when the number of returned ballots was so low.

Sure enough, the returns were ugly—not just for the losers but for our democracy that only thrives when voters participate.  King County turned out a record low of 39.17%% of registered voters. In Pierce County, voter performance fell to just 34.01% this year. Low voter participation has consequences. The Secretary of State’s statewide records go back to 1936, and not one election has had less than 40% voter turnout—until 2015. Our statewide voter performance this year was an embarrassing 38.45%. Indeed the Secretary of State’s last four years of voter performance data shows a frightening steep, steady decline.

A case in point: Initiative 1366, a Tim Eyman measure to radically reduce state revenues, won with a total of only 760,500 votes. With some 4 million registered voters in the state, that’s a rate of support of about 17%.   Factor in the chunk of citizens who aren’t even registered to vote and the decision-making slice of the population falls to around ten percent of our citizens making our budget decisions. Can we claim to have a democracy when a small minority of ten percent of citizens make decisions for all of us to live by?

Another case in point: In the 30th Legislative District in South King County, the total spending in the battle for one little state House seat last November added up to some two million dollars! For all that money, just 23,089 voters actually turned in their ballots. This amounts to spending almost $100.00 per vote cast. Despite all that expense and attention, the voter participation in the 30th district was actually lower than the statewide average. This is mind boggling!

Voting rights advocates had hoped that our all mail-in ballot would increase voter participation. And in Presidential years when the big national issues are debated, voter participation in our state has been much better, reaching 86.6% in 2008 for Obama’s first national election. But in “off year” or “mid-term” elections voter engagement has fallen off a cliff in the last several cycles.   If one eliminates the spikes of the presidential elections, the trend line shows a steady decline in voter turnout over the last decade.

So what can be done? First eliminate what won’t work:

  • Raising and spending more money for independent expenditures doesn’t create higher voter participation.
  • Consultants using sophisticated micro-targeting of a smaller demographic of specific kinds of voters has meant less attention to the universe of voters, and lower participation from them.
  • Focusing on new registrations doesn’t address the underlying disconnect of our citizens in mid-term, off year elections.

While increasing voter registration is a laudable activity, it doesn’t directly address the lack of participation by the millions who are already registered, but not bothering to vote. Mail in ballots are a convenience for some, but easy to overlook for others, and has failed to create higher voter performance overall. But we can turn this discouraging trend around.

Here are some ideas worth pursuing:

  • Install ballot drop boxes at every Post Office.
  • Organize ballot turn in “parties,” with a return of the “I voted” stickers for the proud participants.
  • Modernize registration to be portable and moves when you do
  • Pre-registration when you get your first driver’s license
  • Automatic voter registration, with an opt out for those who object to their civic duty
  • Democracy vouchers, a la the Seattle initiative passed by voters last year
  • Door-to-door collections of signed, sealed ballots, as they do in Oregon.

And we must find effective ways to re-engage with citizens. Surveys by the California Voter Foundation found deep cynicism among registered voters who don’t vote regularly, finding 66 percent of infrequent voters believe “Politics are controlled by special interests.” A more recent study on poverty and voter turnout found a direct correlation between high poverty rates and lower voter participation. In other words, “The more you make, the more you make the rules,” according to Mike Madrid of GrassrootsLab. Sadly, that is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The US Supreme Court has agreed to rule on a troubling case out of Texas this year that has the potential of upending our long-held “one person one vote” rule.   The challenge is based on the conservative premise that only “eligible voters” should be counted, and the population of children, legal immigrants, undocumented immigrants and former felons should be ignored. As an elected state Senator, I would consider it unconscionable to ignore huge numbers of children and adults in my district. My oath of election is to represent all the people, not just those who registered or eligible to vote.

Perhaps the threat of losing the right to be represented will activate the inactive. I do hope the advocates who believe that real democracy means broad voter participation should coalesce around an action plan to reactivate voters to raise their voices and cast their ballots.

-K2

 

 

1/26/16 – A Tale of Two Cities

While Seattle’s new minimum wage law is actually being enforced, after just nine months of taking effect, the $15 an hour minimum wage at Sea-Tac International Airport is not, after more than two years of being in effect. Seattle has 62 investigation and back wages ordered. Sea-Tac’s back wages are mounting by the day, and after two years, they amount to tens of millions of dollars!

The largest chunk of back wages ordered in Seattle is $140,447 to some 40 employees at a closed Butler & Hosch law firm. No one knows which employer owes the biggest chunk of back wages at Sea-Tac, but the bill will likely be huge. Every day of delay creates a larger financial incentive to resist compliance. Some estimate the bill for wages owed could amount to $40 million by Sea-Tac airport employers.

Last October when the state Supreme Court again upheld the Sea-Tac $15 minimum wage as passed by voters in 2013, demonstrators at the airport celebrated, and indeed some employers on airport property finally started paying the legal minimum wage, 21 months late. But other employers are still holding out.

One of my constituents who works as a “fueler” filling jets sent me an e-mail on January 15th this year reporting that he and his co-workers at Swissport have yet to see a wage increase or any back wages. “They keep telling us the airport is challenging the decision for the minimum wage….that’s why we haven’t received anything yet. That’s what they tell us,” he wrote.

I am at the end of patience over this intransigence by Sea-Tac airport companies who took the voter approved minimum wage to court shortly after it was passed and dragged out the case with appeal after appeal. Justice delayed is justice denied for low wage workers at the airport.

Last week I asked the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries to undertake prompt and comprehensive action on behalf of the long-suffering employees at the airport. In part I asked:

“Many of my constituents have asked me for help in receiving the wage increase as well as back wages that have yet to be paid since the initiative took effect in January, 2014. Since the opponents of the law have resorted to lengthy court challenges, I am asking the Department of Labor and Industries to issue a written Letter of Guidance for all employers doing business within the Port of Seattle’s airport operations in the city of SeaTac.

Current self-reporting by employers is inadequate and most troubling, without any oversight. In my view, LNI investigations should be undertaken to assure full compliance by all employers at the airport….I urge you to take prompt action to resolve this ongoing dispute in my district.”

I am pleased to report that the Director of the state Department of Labor and Industries has already responded to my letter. By e-mail yesterday, Director Joel Sacks informed me that his Department is coordinating with the Attorney General on the application of the law. The law already took effect for some 1800 private sector employees at airport area hotels, restaurants and parking lots more than 24 months ago. But airport property employees may still have to wait some more.

I am advised airport employers have a couple of legal maneuvers left to delay still longer. Lawyers tell me that Alaska Airlines has 90 days from the date of the State Supreme Court’s ruling denying reconsideration of its earlier ruling to file a petition for review by the US Supreme Court. That decision won’t be known until the end of February, 2016. Twenty six months since the SeaTac Prop 1 became law. Still waiting!

-K2

1/19/16 – Sea-Tac Airport Should Get Out of its Box

Holiday travel is always a challenge. The crowded gates, concourses and amenities at Sea-Tac International Airport adds another level of anxiety to create an especially unpleasant environment. But it’s only going to get worse. Sea-Tac is the fastest growing major airport in the entire country. It’s past time for the Port of Seattle to “think out of the box” it is stuck in at Sea-Tac.

It took years to defeat local opposition to the third runway and now after just a few years of three runway operations, the airfield is near capacity in good weather, and exceeds capacity in poor weather. It has the smallest acreage of any major international airport. Passenger growth is up more than thirteen percent in 2015. Projections of growth for both passengers and aircraft operations show they will overwhelm the facility and there is nowhere to grow.

We’ve seen this air traffic jam coming. In 2008, I sponsored SB 5121 to study the long term aviation needs of the state. Unfortunately the “Great Recession” hit and air travel was one of the depressed economic sectors. Based on passenger and aircraft operations data then, the study predicted Sea-Tac would be at maximum capacity in 2030. Now it looks more like 2020, given the current growth of our regional economy.

It takes at least a decade, and maybe two, to develop commercial aviation facilities. Denver did it, and did it well. But we are stalled. In aviation, stalling is what you must avoid.

The Port of Seattle has shown creativity and initiative by crafting an alliance with the Port of Tacoma for maritime operations. I have met with Port of Seattle leaders and have urged them to use that same creativity and initiative for its aviation operations.

The current Sustainable Airport Master Plan (SAMP) by the Port of Seattle clearly acknowledges the physical limitations it confronts bounded by state highways, critical areas and even a large cemetery. Stuffing more air operations into this constrained space means more congestion for everyone, and for my constituents it means more environmental degradation. The plan to expand to more freight operations out of Sea-Tac to enhance revenue for the Port poses significant challenges.

The tens of thousands of suburban residents I represent who live underneath the Sea-Tac flight paths are already burdened with the disparate impact of noise pollution, air pollution, and depressed property values because of concentrated airport operations. Freight carriers are generally much louder than passenger jets, and they fly at all hours including late night and early morning hours when people are trying to sleep. In my view, the prospect of 24/7 air operations at Sea-Tac imposed on the part of King County with the lowest incomes and the most racial diversity reeks of discrimination.

Fortunately our state has two alternatives that offer much better solutions. According to the 2009 Long Term Aviation Transportation (LATS) study, the one airport within the Puget Sound Special Emphasis Area that does not face running over maximum capacity within the next fifteen years is Paine Field, owned and operated by Snohomish County. The other four, including Sea-Tac, will exceed their capacity by then. Population growth in North King and Snohomish County is robust, and updated marketing studies will no doubt show strong aviation demand growth.

A second option is Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake. As a hub for agricultural products and as a way to avoid the current Seattle area traffic gridlock for airfreight destined for points beyond Seattle, this under-used facility in Eastern Washington could become a vital link in the overall aviation strategy for our state.

The LATS study produced for SB 5121 also recommended that expansion of aviation capacity be planned at the state level to meet the needs of our entire economy and our entire population.   It would appear the time for that state-level planning has arrived. Time is short and the horizon looms. We have an urgent need for the Port of Seattle to partner with the state, and serious talks should be undertaken with Snohomish and Grant Counties to create a viable, thriving aviation infrastructure for us all.

-K2

 

1/11/16 – Golden Anniversaries Galore!

At a community health clinic in Renton last year, yet another “50th Anniversary Celebration” with the requisite cake and balloons marked the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.  Throughout 2015 numerous celebrations were staged to mark the Golden Anniversary of a remarkable list of major public policy landmarks–The Voting Rights Act, Headstart, Medicare and Medicaid not to mention the War on Poverty with programs like food stamps that reduced poverty by the millions. What all these landmarks have in common is that they became law because President Lyndon Baines Johnson was President.

It pains me to recall my years when I hated Lyndon Johnson. I despised the military draft and his role in escalating the war in Vietnam. I reviled him. I demonstrated against him, chanting, “hey hey, LBJ how many kids did you kill today?!”   As a student at Cal Berkeley, studying political science and journalism I was fixated on student protest. How could I have been so narrow minded to not grasp the political skill of the 36th President who piled up the largest legacy of progressive legislation in our country’s entire history? In retrospect I am astonished at my blind spot. And we thought we were so smart!

I must be a slow learner. After twenty years in the state legislature, I have been on both sides of a divide between talking and doing. As a reporter, I learned to write and speak with a clear and conversational style. So, in floor speeches, I would hold forth with self-righteous indignation and scolding rhetoric. Eventually it dawned on me that the more I spoke the less legislation I passed. When I moved from the House to the Senate, I changed my style. Not my values, not my convictions nor my goals—simply my style. Because I could count on one hand the number of votes that were ever changed with a floor speech.

Our friends in the public galleries watch for those floor speeches as a measure of our performance. But it is only a performance.

As a journalist I had always believed that information was power and that an informed electorate had the power to make informed choices and achieve real change.   Information is powerful. But facts no longer seem to matter in most debates. Most debates are won or lost on emotion and ideological alignment.

An informed speaker remains a power to behold. Bill Clinton can still transfix a room with his knowledge and effortless ease delivering facts and stories. Barack Obama has delivered wonderful speeches from the start of his political career. Bernie Sanders rouses thousands of cheering supporters as he rails against the powerful who control the financial and economic levers of our lives. Lyndon Johnson never created that kind of fervor. Lyndon Johnson gave awful speeches with that ugly drawl and owlish scowl looking through those heavy glasses of his.

It seems we need both the “hot talk” and skilled lawmakers to make enduring progress. Decades ago, the conservative movement adopted this strategy in the states. Fifty years ago, when the Voting Rights Act became law, its opponents devised a counter-strategy that has sadly achieved many of its aims.* The Supreme Court’s Shelby decision opened the floodgates for the states to turn back the clock. The well-documented “”Southern Strategy” had already branched out to include takeovers of the majority of state legislatures.

Now that nearly 70% of state legislatures are controlled by Republican majorities, no doubt more conservative agenda items will increase the pressure to return to the past before the “Great Society” was born.

The deep pocket funders of this decades-long project to roll back the legacy of LBJ have made sure they created both an echo chamber for hot talk, and an army of ALEC-backed lawmakers to actually pass their agenda at the state level. On the progressive side of the agenda, we also need to marshal effective lawmakers who can win with the tactical moves to implement a strategy that actually improves the lives of our constituents.

It is my hope that our friends and allies mark the many recent 50th anniversary milestones with a new resolve to join forces to strategize for a future of real and enduring progress. Not just talking points, but action. Step by step, state by state, we can win in state legislative chambers, sometimes called the “laboratories of democracy,” with good policy, smart strategies and real vision.

We have been mesmerized by the gridlock in Washington DC far too long. It’s past time to wake up to the reality of the ground game in the states.

-K2