The would-be county killers

A new proposal in Olympia targets counties that are obsolete and take more than they give back. It's an aggressive opening to an important debate.

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State Rep. Reuven Carlyle

A new proposal in Olympia targets counties that are obsolete and take more than they give back. It's an aggressive opening to an important debate.

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.

Counties are not an invention of the modern era: They have taxing authorities that are too limited to provide local services (especially urban ones); the costs of their traditional functions are soaring (courts, jails); and they tend to add to an already thick layer of local governance. Surely, merging smaller ones and giving all counties more modern means of operating or more options for taxation would be a benefit.

The proposed bill does not address all the issues. The state still needs to adopt explicit rules for how counties are created, altered or killed off, so the amendment as proposed gives the legislature a stick, but doesn't define the rules of engagement. The last legislator to wade into the state's lack of rules regarding counties was Republican Toby Nixon, the onetime representative from Kirkland who was responding to groups, like the advocates of Cedar County, who wanted to create new counties in Puget Sound's exurban hinterlands.

One of the arguments against the bill and the "robust public dialogue"  Carlyle says he is encouraging is that it opens a Pandora's box when it comes to the commonweal. Do Seattle liberals really object to subsidizing rural Republican counties, or do they believe in One State and doing their part? The Seattle Times was quick to come down on Carlyle, saying he's leading us down a slippery slope to a Balkanized state where people only pay for what they want to pay for.

Unfortunately, we're already on that slope, thanks in part to opposition to general tax increases (the Times also opposes them, by the way). In a world of deficits and all-cuts, the budget crisis is foisting solutions onto local areas — not all bad, but concerning. Would a ferry district run by Puget Sound counties really be the best thing for the state highway system or for the alphabet soup of public entities already running a jumbled local transportation system?

As policy makers go down the road on tolling highways and charging user fees for state parks, they are furthering a kind of libertarian notion of government: You use it, you pay for it; everyone else is off the hook. That undercuts the notion that government is a force for fairness, for keeping people bound to a common commitment to help each other even if we don't benefit directly. It moves us toward giving every citizen an opt-out clause.

So, while waving the revenue flag and dividing the counties into providers and dependents puts the issue in stark contrast, the real risk is that the debate becomes divisive or turns into a kind of urban-rural, East-West class war. Yet Carlyle is right to highlight the ironies and inconsistencies, and demand recognition of reality. Why cut education and sacrifice infrastructure and continue to fund chronic inefficiencies — things that damage our economic engine at the expense of maintaining revenue drains like obsolete rural bureaucracies that resent the folks who pay their salaries? Surely there's a more optimal approach.

It's worth pointing out that one of the things that has made Washington great is the sense of commonweal, and legislating it. Levy equalization, also being revisited, is one of the ways of ensuring that smaller, property-poor districts can still offer good schools. That emerged from a class struggle in the late 19th Century, as part of the populist movement's reforms (which also included referendum, initiative, the election of state officials, women's vote, etc.).

One of its first expressions was the Barefoot School Boy Law, pushed by a state representative who later became Washington's only Populist governor, John Rankin Rogers. The law assured that a "school boy" could get an education with the help of state dollars regardless of where he lived. It backed a belief that education was the primary function of state government.

Rogers, head of a fusion coalition that was kind of a progressive turn-of-the-century Tea Party of disaffected Democrats, Republicans, Free Silver advocates, and Socialists, wanted the state to redress the imbalance of power that had heavily shifted to large landowners, industrialists, and the railroads. Interesting that then, the Red-Blue divide wasn't rural vs. urban. In fact, the populists drew power from both urban blue-collar workers and rural farmers who wanted more self-determination, a level playing (or wheat) field, and wanted to limit the control of the robber barons. All this coming out of an economic downturn that had been devastating.

Rogers knew that government had to act as the antidote to the economic forces that drove people apart. But he also knew that the state should not be the welfare state for the haves. "The rich," he said, "can take care of themselves." Those in need should be the focus of government help. That might mean Puget Sound urban liberals have to continue to subsidize rural conservatives, painful as that might be. But as Carlyle points out:

I do not support treating levy equalization as a holier than thou, untouchable monument to political correctness. It is a rural subsidy program that attempts to recognize that property poor districts are at a distinct disadvantage in funding public education. No more and no less. But why do we allow the recipients to make the 'equity' argument in levy equalization while they simultaneously propose to eliminate Basic Health Care, Disability Lifeline and every other 'equity' program the state has created? Equity for me but not for thee. 

Despite the rough economy, we are still a people of means. If we, as a state, are going to be denying benefits to the disabled and the poor, cutting their healthcare and stripping them of public assistance, the least we can do is address structural problems that waste money, including eliminating archaic government structures like obsolete counties or school districts that can be consolidated, and insist on a re-commitment to reciprocity, fairness, and a shared reality.

The spirit of the barefoot schoolboy should live on, but let's at least acknowledge that we're all dependent on mutual support. We need to improve the means of providing it, as and where it's needed.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.