Editor's Note: This is one of a series of "Best Crosscuts of 2010" we are running through the holidays. This article originally appeared Nov. 30, 2010.
According to The Economist, the National League of Cities is predicting layoffs of 500,000 workers from local governments in the next few years. I find that an astounding number.
People are mad at government and want change. And they are willing to hurt themselves to make the point. If we are going to move forward, it's important to understand how we got into this fix.
We know the anger, perplexing though it sometimes appears, is real and has the potential to be very destructive. Its full expression was seen not just in the recent elections but also in the constant drumbeat of stories about the lack of capacity for government to solve problems and the pressure that government salaries, staffing levels, and pension liabilities are putting on the private sector. Many of our citizens believe that government is no longer on their side — a tragedy, given that government is our creation.
Some leaders understand this and are trying to move forward, past the conflict.
State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, described the conflict this way in a recent visit with Crosscut writers, "The social contract between public employees and the private sector has been broken." He went on to say there has always been an understanding that public employees would sacrifice higher wages in the private sector for job security and better health and retirement benefits. Now, people outside government see government employees as having it all while taxpayers struggle to stay afloat and keep up with utility bills and rent. They simply don't see a serious effort by government to change.
Carlyle provided some hints at what kinds of discussions the budget crisis will necessitate: He expects more pressure for department functions to be supported by user fees, even though passage of I-1053 mandates that fees must be approved by the legislature. Any cost-of-living adjustments should be contingent on what's happening with the economy. Health-care costs will have to be controlled and state workers will likely have to pay a greater share. The state pension system will have to be reformed. And finally, the state must address structural issues; the state should not duplicate what other levels of government or the private sector can do better.
And there are many things that government does incredibly well. So well, in fact, that it often goes unnoticed.
Consider Seattle Public Utilities, regional water provider. Since the 1970s, we have added 1 million new users to the system but we still use the same amount of water.
How would we ever have cleaned up Lake Washington without adequate funding for government programs to get the job done? Could that happen in the current political environment? Do we have the will to restore and protect Puget Sound?
If we want to deal successfully with current problems, we have to figure how to chart a new course. Carlyle has some interesting ideas. First, think of government as a service delivery organization and not so much as a jobs program – meaning staffing levels are secondary to the service. Second, services that are improved by the profit motive should be privatized and those that are degraded by the profit motive should be delivered by government. This will focus priorities and leave more capacity to deliver quality services to taxpayers.
I am surprised that even now, some elected officials are still blaming the voters for making stupid decisions at the ballot box and angrily pronouncing the painful cuts that will come. I understand this impulse —sort of like the third stage of the seven stages of grief: anger and bargaining. How can the voters not understand how devastating their decisions are to the well-being of the state?
But this misses the point. The people do not feel connected to the decision-making process and don't believe the painful cuts will affect them.
I fully expect our elected leaders, lobbyists, and constituency groups to move through the other four stages of grief and realize that change, while painful, is inevitable. The real question is whether the average citizen will feel that they have "skin in the game" and participate in the change.
Citizen anger at government is not new. It has been building for the past 30 years at least and has been fueled in part by relentless attacks by those who see government as the enemy and all taxes as extortion.
In Washington state, I first noticed this dynamic in 1999, with the passage of Initiative 695, the $30 Car Tab Initiative. This is the campaign that propelled Tim Eyman to prominence and has led to many more initiatives since, most recently, I-1053, another tax limiting initiative. And while we blame Eyman for sponsoring these initiatives, it is the voters who continually approve them.
To understand Eyman’s success, you have to go back to 1999. There was a general feeling that state government had more money than it knew what to do with. A Peter Hart poll done after passage of the initiative found that 71 percent of the people thought government had either too much or enough of their money. And while Hart didn't conclude that it was an all-out tax revolt, he cautioned those that were looking at implementing an income tax or other tax reform policies to be careful and do their research before proposing anything new.
But there was another reason, or rationale, that has been less explored. And that is the impact of baseball, or more particularly, the building of Safeco Field. (The bonds, which were initially scheduled to be paid back by 2016, will likely be paid back sometime next year.)
In 1999, I was working on the No on 695 campaign. I was not one of the strategists but rather, coordinated the grassroots effort. We opened an office, coordinated volunteers, waved signs at the ferry docks, transit hubs, baseball and football games, home shows, and anyplace else we could think of.
I was excited about defeating what I thought was a terrible idea that would have long-range, negative effects on the state. I was feeling very positive about the campaign.
It was, without a doubt, one of the most negative experiences of my life. Outside a Seahawks game one Sunday, I had to call off our canvassing because of the spitting and cussing directed toward our volunteers. People were punching our signs and generally making it known that this was war. On election night, a rock was thrown through our front window. Okay, I got the message.
During the campaign, we fielded hundreds of calls from angry people who all referenced the same issue: "We voted against the baseball stadium and you made us pay for it anyway." This was the reasoning given by virtually everyone we talked to. Even ferry riders, who knew that the initiative would hurt the system that they depended on, were angry about Safeco Field. Even Mariners fans were mad about it!
And so, I-695 coasted to victory and would eventually decimate our ferry service and remove support from public health services, and eliminate $2.6 billion in transportation infrastructure funding. (It should be noted, however, that the initiative was found to be unconstitutional and the legislature passed it and Gov. Gary Locke signed it into law. If they had acted earlier, the same legislature and governor could have changed the license tabs collection to make it fairer and based on the real value of the car, rather than the inflated state valuation, and possibly stopped Eyman in his tracks.)
The service most impacted by I-695 was probably Washington State Ferries. They lost 75 percent of their capital funding, and 25 percent of their operations funding. Over the last ten years the system has been subsidized by gas tax revenues of $800 million – money that could presumably be used for transportation investments elsewhere to start to plug the $2.6 billion gap created by I-695. Ferry customers now are dealing with less service and higher cost, not exactly great from a customer service standpoint.
And here's the kicker: Ferry system users are willing to pay more to protect their levels of service. But standing in the way of any fare increase is — you guessed it — Tim Eyman and his most recent measure, Initiative 1053. He claims the fare increase must go to the legislature for a vote. And while I assume the legislature will go along with the Washington State Transportation Commission's recommendation for an increase, this is no way to run a railroad, or ferry system.
Here’s how WSF has dealt with the recent financial stresses: Over the last two years, they cut administrative and capital programs by $27 million – the Office of Finance and Management (OFM) is asking for another cut of $17 million in the 2011-2013 biennium. Keep in mind that WSF has a farebox recovery rate of 65 to 70 percent of operations expenses. This is higher than virtually any other transit agency. Of course, this still leaves a gaping hole in capital funding, which has a way of catching up with us in a very negative way.
It's the same thing with our other infrastructure, whether it be water, power, roads, sewer, parks, and buildings. We simply don't have the money to do all these things and the people don't trust government enough to provide more funding. They are essentially calling the bluff of elected leaders who say they don't have the money to fund basic priorities. So the state will have to cut $5.7 billion from a biennium budget of $32.3 billion.
And we can't raise taxes to help save basic health care for our poorest neighbors. General assistance will likely be eliminated, forcing people into desperate situations. But most of us won’t notice. We will see more homeless people on the street and complain that not enough is being done, but at the heart of it, people just don't believe elected officials or government representatives are doing enough to reform — and just like in 1999, they think government has enough of their money.
Entrenched interests may thrive in the current us vs. them struggle for ideological purity, but the voters will continue to put a pox on all our houses, including their own, until there is evidence that real change is in the air. So long as this is an argument between those who think government can do no wrong and government can do no right, we cannot make the needed reforms in government.
Let's hope that we have more leaders like Carlyle willing to rise above simplistic and harsh rhetoric and show that government really is on our side and can be reformed. Those leaders are out there, waiting for the chance to take bigger roles in the legislature and other offices. But even if that happens, a big question will remain: Will we allow them to lead?