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Let’s seize ‘the opportunity of this crisis’

Rep. Reuven Carlyle values Crosscut's "prolific, original, on-the-ground reporting." Credit: Credit: Carlyle campaign

Let’s face it: We are missing the “opportunity of this crisis” to embrace a fundamental new approach to how government works. We are self-censuring ourselves before we’re even out the door with new ideas, new approaches, and new policies.

We need to gain the courageous honesty to embrace this crisis, to transform how our state government operates, and to promote meaningful reform. We need to tackle old problems with new energy and spirit. We need to redefine our very definition of “leadership” so we’re not looking for someone to push from the top but to unleash from the bottom. We need bold systems-thinking about structural challenges because our old model of tinkering with the symptoms is no longer working.

As a backbench member of the Legislature, I appreciate that things take time. I appreciate that my job is to listen and learn, and to recognize the complexity of government is not easy. Yet there is also something powerful afoot with the President’s message that we’re all community organizers now. As we citizens and politicians design a comprehensive strategy for legislation in 2010 and beyond, we need to recognize that people are inspired by a belief that Northwesterners can be so much more than what we’ve settled for.

We are an entrepreneurial, creative, and engaged region. Yet too often our public policies do not reflect these core values. As I see it, we face four fundamental issues in our state today: health care, education, taxes, and governmental reform. Let me take them in order.

Health care: We are essentially punting to the Obama administration to fix the insurance side of the problem, yet that is a fraction of the larger systems issue. We need a new approach toward a prevention-oriented system of care. We could do amazing things if we linked city, county, and state employees together and demanded a new approach to prevention and wellness, one that would reduce the ruthless increase in costs to taxpayers.

Here’s an example. If you smoke as a public employee, we’ll give you 12 months and free access to programs to quit. At the end of that time, if you still smoke, your deductible increases sharply and dramatically. Same with obesity and other problems. This is a way to hold people accountable for the long term costs of their behavior. But are we doing it? King County’s lauded program is good but not enough; cities and other counties and the state are nowhere near where they need to be for us to become the healthiest state in the nation by any metric.

Health care costs are devouring tax dollars, yet we leave each city, county, state, and other government agency to fend for itself in insuring its workforce. We can’t just continue to feed the beast of the current health-care complex and expect healthier kids, families, and communities to result.

Education: We made modest, thoughtful, and genuine steps forward with the Education Reform Act, HB 2261. Now we have to tackle funding and how to get better results for the tens of billions we are spending. Washington is losing out on federal funds in this area because we don’t have quality data, measurable systems, charter schools, and other reforms that the Obama administration feels are vital to systemic improvement.

Here are some indicators of how serious our education problem has become. Seattle’s high school graduation rate is 62 percent. Nearly one quarter of the adults of our state don’t have a high school diploma. Yet despite these problems, Seattle’s School District has granted tenure to school principals, raising the question of how can you lead a school and empower better teachers when you yourself aren’t held to high standards?

Some suggestions for reform: Bring back shop class by forming new partnerships with community and technical colleges. Unleash the University of Washington and other colleges by giving them control over their own budgets instead of forcing them to play politics to keep legislators happy. Mostly, let’s admit that our education focus has been on inputs (more money) and process (fewer hard decisions), rather than on outcomes and results.

Tax reform: We need a more equitable, diversified, and small-business-friendly tax structure. As both a business person and a legislator, my preferred model is lower property taxes, low personal income taxes, low sales taxes, and low corporate profit taxes. We need to reduce our dependence upon the consumer-driven taxes (such as our very high sales tax), but not shift everything to only one tax. Without a balanced and diversified tax structure, we will struggle as other states do, such as Oregon with its over-reliance on an income tax.

Our sales tax is too high; our B&O tax crushes small and start-up business. It’s time for reform that is based not just on getting more money in the door for government — and in education and some other ares we do need more moeny — but looking at structural issues such as stability, equity, and long-term economic growth matched to the modern economy and our regional competitive advantages.

Why are we so afraid of a dialogue with the public about designing a 21st century tax structure? Let’s take the thoughtful Gates Commission study off the dusty shelf and get to work.

Government reform: It’s been a long time since there was an entrepreneurial spirit in government. I acknowledge that it’s a long journey from the cut-throat high tech world to government, and I admit to struggling at times with my own lack of institutional history or understanding about how things got this way.

But here’s an example of a practice that just doesn’t make sense to me. The state spends well above $1 billion annually on technology, including what amounts to a 3,500-person “help desk.” We don’t have a clear strategy, accounting, oversight, or management of those dollars — at a time when large businesses are eagerly searching for new technologies to save money in this field.

In areas such as information technology, our state government is paralyzed by its lethargy and lack of intellectual interest in reform. Consider how the state is considering spending an estimated $500 million on a new, consolidated data center, filled with state employees managing old servers, when the macro technology trends are all marching in the opposite direction toward the lower cost, more flexible and secure “cloud.” I calculate that by eliminating a handful of old servers and stale systems we could, for instance, send every foster kid in Washington to college.

Another major area of concern is our reluctance to sort out the most effective levels of government service. Do we need 290-plus school districts, each with its own transportation, food service, and other back-end infrastructure? Could we shift public health dollars to the counties, where most of the services are delivered? Do we need 34 separate community college presidents with their own administrations? Why so many taxing districts, with little transparency to the taxpayers? Should the City of Seattle provide mental health counseling services to students in need, since principals are begging for assistance? Why fill crowded and extremely expensive jails with non-violent drug offenders?

I do not pretend for a moment to have the policy answers. Of course, state and local government does a great deal very well. I’ve learned that we have a citizen Legislature that is pushing and agitating for new approaches. I’m grateful to be part of a younger, activist freshman class that was elected in the year of Obama’s victory and has embraced the spirit of change and hope here at home.

In my view, the larger political battle today is less about old polarities of left versus right, Democrat versus Republican, unions versus business. Rather, the issue today is between those who are gripped by the cynicism of the institutional power of public and private-sector bureaucracies, and those who are willing to take risks, to embrace change, and to push for systemic thinking and reform.

Our state is home to innovation, creativity, and new approaches in aerospace, software, mobile technology, biotechnology, clean energy, philanthropy, and so much more. As we face the biggest economic transformation in generations, isn’t it time to put government on that list?

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