The mood of the people is sour. That was on full display in Washington state and around the country yesterday (Nov. 2).
Voters generally rejected new taxes, removed taxes on soda, candy, and bottled water, and made it much harder for the legislature to balance the books by passing the Tim Eyman anti-tax initiative.
However, they rejected privatizing liquor sales, and in Seattle, appear to be overwhelmingly passing a new supplemental schools levy. They also appear to be sending Patty Murray back to the United States Senate, although the race is still too tight to call as mail-in ballots continue to be counted.
So what is the message and how should elected officials respond?
The legislature will face at least a $4 billion shortfall in the coming biennium. King County is facing deep cuts, and voters didn’t want to give county leaders the sales-tax increase they sought for public-safety measures. And the city of Seattle won’t get any help from the state or county in balancing its budget.
In fact, when you talk to local officials, there is talk of needing local levy authority to make up for spending cuts coming down the line from the state and federal governments. Keep in mind, there will likely be no more federal bailout money for the states — the new Tea Party members in the House will not allow it.
So is the government paradigm changing? After 1994, Bill Clinton proclaimed that “the era of big government is over.” Are we entering a similar transformational period? Or will our elected leaders hunker down and wait for better times? It’s hard to see how the state in particular can come up with a strategy to balance the budget given the constraints approved by the voters. And now the Republicans will share in the responsibility of solving this mess. Will Republicans and Democrats work together to transform government, or will we constantly be looking down the road to the next election hoping that things improve?
Unfortunately, the moderates have fared badly in this cycle on both the Democratic and Republican sides. The Republicans have been energized by the Tea Party activists who probably cost them control of the U.S. Senate. Those activists will make it difficult for Republicans to compromise and solve complex problems with Democrats. And Democrats have lost some moderate voices in swing districts around the country and in this state — some even targeted by Democratic constituency groups; state Sen. Jean Berkey comes to mind.
And if Democrats and Republicans believe that total control is the only way to ensure good governance, we will get only chaos and voter cynicism. I fully expect a major confrontation at the federal and state level. The question will be whether the conflict is creative or destructive. The government shutdown in 1994 ended up leading to the revival of Bill Clinton’s presidency and some major compromises and changes in government spending and budgeting. Most of us, Republicans and Democrats, thought those changes were positive.
It seems obvious that voters, once again, don’t think government is doing enough to change. It will be tempting for Democrats to say voters didn’t have enough information and were swayed by messages of fear. It reminds me of George W. Bush’s re-election, which Democratic pundits attributed to the stupidity of voters. I know this can make the losing side feel better, but it is not helpful in the long run to being responsive to voters.
It is much more helpful to understand what the voters are saying and be responsive to their concerns. Government at all levels has been late to change and fully understand what people have been experiencing in the private sector for some time. And just because some of the people taking advantage of this general anger at the ballot box are not well-versed in policy, and in some cases just not qualified, does not lessen the meaning of this election. There is an opportunity to refocus our expectations of government and to use the conflict of shared power in a creative way.
Someone needs to proclaim what the new era of government is. Because the voters know they don’t like the old one and will vote for change again in two years if Democrats and Republicans can’t figure out how to work together.