Three state representatives, including two Puget Sound Democrats and a Republican, have sponsored a bill offering a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would give the legislature the power to eliminate counties that don't pull their weight. Since the county map has been set for exactly a century (the last current county was created in 1911), such a proposal seems a bit like tossing tomatoes at the Cascades to get them to budge. Washington's 39 counties seem set in stone. Not that they should be.
The bill, sponsored by Democrats Reuven Carlyle of Seattle and Hans Dunshee of Snohomish, and Republican Glenn Anderson of Fall City, says the state should be able to shut down counties that aren't capable of sustaining themselves. That means that if a county received state funds equaling 200 percent or more of the revenues that it contributed to the state over 10 years, the legislature could move to dissolve or reorganize the county.
As it happens, this isn't theoretical. There are eight counties that could be endangered under the rule: Adams, Asotin, Ferry, Stevens, Lincoln, Garfield, Yakima, and Wahkiakum. The bill is designed less to become law than to get some lawmakers' attention. It's no coincidence that these counties tend to be rural and Republican. Unsurprisingly, the proposal is not getting good reviews in Eastern Washington.
One of the reasons for the bill is to engage a conversation about fairness. How should cuts be determined, and where should spending occur? In a time of budget crisis, does it make more sense to invest in the state's economic engines (places like King County, which alone generates 40 percent of state revenues), or dribble money away to entities that arguably survive on state welfare? Is it fair to use legislation to point out the irony or hypocrisy of GOP fiscal conservatism when many Republican strongholds are most reliant on the public dole?
Reuven Carlyle says that figuring which counties pay the most taxes and which get the most benefit is important information. Writing on his blog:
Six counties contribute a whopping 75% of the state’s taxes and eight are 'net contributors' of taxes while 31 are 'net recipient.' In a overarching generalization with exceptions, the political disposition of those 31 'net recipient' counties seem to lean Republican while the six 'net contributor' counties might be seen to lean Democratic. The 31 are mostly rural while the six are more populated.
This isn't the real issue or even the reason I am promoting a robust public dialogue. My real goal is simple: As we make substantial reductions in state spending, we must break free of the stale, rigid political cliches and recognize that we cannot cut our way out of this Great Recession.
In other words, Carlyle is trying to get everyone to focus on the bind we are in together. Many rural conservatives are dependent on state largesse, yet they act as if urbanized Western Washington is the problem. Carlyle continues:
Why is it acceptable for some counties, for example, to receive $2 or more for every dollar they send to state government year in and year out and yet vote against every tax imaginable without grasping the implications? I may be accused of proposing to "punish" counties for voting against taxes, but surely those counties should feel the honest, true and legitimate externalities of implications for their policy positions. That is not "punishment," it is courageous honesty that is outside of the comfort zone of our state’s current political discourse.
For one thing, if counties are chronically dependent, perhaps the state should incentivize locals to find efficiencies, which is presumably what the bill would do. I proposed last year that we re-look at the county map and think about which ones could be divided, consolidated, or eliminated as a potential cost-saving response to the budget crisis. Counties were mostly created in the horse-and-buggy era. After my piece came out, Bill Stafford, retiring head of the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle, shared a 2004 memo with me in which he decried the current county system as antiquated, based on a time when the county seat had to be located no more than a day's horseback ride away. Surely in the era of freeways and the Internet, we can do better than that.
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