Rep. Reuven Carlyle: How I’ll vote on the state budget

State Rep. Reuven Carlyle

Editor’s note: State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat, has been a prolific blogger at his website, reuvencarlyle36.com, since his election in 2008. This commentary appeared there on Sunday.

I’m not embarrassed to speak openly of my deep embrace of hope, the essence of a more just society, the idealism of change. We face a time of tremendous change in our nation as families struggle and our world looks differently than in years past. As President Obama fights for bold new approaches to health care, technology, education and more, we face our own systems challenges here at home.

Last week legislators gathered in Olympia for two days of committee meetings. We rolled up our sleeves and looked in depth at policies and programs necessary to deal with a projected $2.6 billion deficit in 2010. The legislative session, slated for 60 days, begins Jan. 11.

There is a growing consensus, from Governor Gregoire to legislative leaders, that our state cannot function under the weight of another “all cuts” budget. With nearly 70 percent of the state budget constrained by constitutional and federal government boundaries (mostly public schools), we’re faced with a crisis in those areas where spending is formally considered discretionary. There has been a great deal of discussion of this issue within government, but on many levels large numbers of regular citizens haven’t seen firsthand the impacts of the budget cuts.

While some legislators have taken a position that they will vote for or against an “all cuts” budget, I have a slight twist on the criteria.

In addition to the spending and revenue levels, a third criteria for how I’ll vote on the budget is based on the central question of systems change. I have raised the question of systems change here, here, and here. And here.

To me systems change is about looking at our structures, systems, infrastructure of methodology, norms and behaviors and asking one core question: What would our systems look like if we designed them anew, today, from scratch? We are paralyzed by institutional infrastructure of “how it’s done.” We find ourselves censoring our own thinking. We too often pull back from “what is possible” before we even get a new idea of the drawing board. I’m not suggesting everything is broken, and yet much of how we do business in state government does require a bold new approach. Systems change is not just about cuts and eliminating small programs.

The great moral, social, and economic movements of our time have been built upon the hope for change.

Systems change is about looking through the gift of eyes to see new possibilities. If community organizers across the world — women’s suffrage, Gandhi, FDR, JFK, Martin Luther King, Solidarity, Velvet Revolution, Berlin Wall, Mandela, and so many more — can bring about systems change, surely we can courageously tackle the relatively modest policy challenges we face in our state today.

We have the courage, the energy, the spirit, and the smarts to be so much more.

From both a policy and political perspective, do we have the courage during these difficult times as a Legislature to tackle structural issues that go to the core of business as usual? Will we embrace a reform agenda this year that looks at tough questions of how we fund, manage, and operate vital public services? Will we explore issues that are uncomfortable because they challenge us to reform how we operate government?

Or will we censor ourselves?

I am a progressive and I believe we must have the courageous honesty to stand up for those in need. We must recognize that government has a vital role to play in building quality of life, our economy, and our economic infrastructure. Government does not create jobs but it enables the public infrastructure of education to create an engaged workforce. The gracious work of most public servants is driven by an intense belief in the common good.

Many people too often think of public employees as nameless, faceless bureaucrats. If that’s your view, think about four committed public servants from Lakewood who are being laid to rest: Tina Griswold, Gregory Richards, Mark Renninger, and Ronald Owens.

As we face the most profound structural shift in our economy in generations, let’s have the courage to look at some government reforms not just as a cost savings tool but as a way of embracing systems thinking.

Here are some modest but legitimate examples about ways we could reform government.

Licensing: Many question the central premise of whether state and county governments should have a massive infrastructure of licensing. I agree. Cars, trucks, boats, businesses, and so many other categories of licensing mean we have a major infrastructure to distribute to citizens what I consider a “commodity” service.

What is the unique “value add” that state employees bring to licensing? Is this one area where the private sector, operating with clear guidelines and regulatory structures, could more efficiently deliver this service? I think it’s an important question. Since I don’t serve on the State Government Committee, I’m not intimately familiar with the licensing arena, and there may be much more to it than I suspect. But I’d like to see a deep analysis of whether this isn’t, in fact, an area where we could potentially save substantial amounts of money.

Liquor: It is time to run the numbers on the issue of whether the state should modify it’s monopoly selling relationship with liquor. There are clearly concerns about abuse and access to alcohol that make liquor different than licensing, but the central financial question remains. We have created a monopoly. Is that the best model in the 21st century with today’s budget problems? I don’t know, but I’m asking the question along with a number of other legislators.

Technology: At a time when technology means lower cost and better service, the state continues to struggle and spend more than $1.2 billion a year with little oversight, management, or coordination. We can do so much better. Suffice to say that it’s time for bold systems thinking and action.

A new generation of transportation funding: Time to move beyond a 20th century gasoline-tax model and explore ways to support transit, public infrastructure, roads, and more in a strategic way.

Service delivery: What level of government should deliver what service? Should local governments assume more authority over their bonds (without the state’s support)? Should counties have an even more active role with more taxing authority? Should we look closely at areas where the state subsidizes local governments yet those same local governments turn around and criticize Olympia for overspending?

And some big ones.

Education reform: Now is the time to embrace a new strategy. We must tackle the Race to the Top challenge not just for the money, but for the larger opportunity it presents to our children’s future. Yes, it means creating an “intervention” strategy so the state can intervene in failing schools. Yes, it means creating some form of differential payment for teachers. Yes, it means giving principals more authority and more accountability. Yes, it means empowering parents. Yes, it means unleashing the spirit and energy of teachers who are part of the DNA of learning. And so much more.

Taxes: It is time for a new tax structure that is fairer, more progressive, well designed, and small-business friendly.

None of these are extremely bold, radical, or particularly innovative ideas. But nearly every “priorities in government” initiative, study or analysis has raised the question of whether the state should be in this line of work in the current, 20th-century fashion. They represent a small start in asking the question: What would our government look like if we designed it anew?

And so, I want to be clear that with our economy struggling and many public services stressed to the point of breaking, I will not vote for an “all cuts” budget. Nor a timid one. I feel a public obligation to be clear that I will not vote for a budget in 2010 that raises taxes but that ultimately fails to embrace the more structural political challenge of systems reform. The answer is not simply more government or less government but better government. We need a three-pronged strategy of spending, revenues, and government reform to convince the public — and ourselves — that we’re doing all we can to build a 21st-century state government.

We can be so much more than what we’ve become.

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