Not long ago, when the pandemic first hit, society had an “aha!” moment.
Public servants, especially those on the lower end of the income ladder, were seriously undervalued. It was folks in health and food services, garbage collection, maintenance, security — not CEOs — who kept our communities from falling apart.
Commercials were made, airtime was bought and billboards went up thanking them for sacrificing their safety, and in many cases their lives, for the rest of us.
Now, with Washington state expecting an $8.8 billion budget deficit, a chorus of voices including the editorial board of this paper have called on the governor to reopen these same workers’ contracts, cancel their raises and make “bold” cuts to the services they provide the residents of this state.
Doing so would make things worse.
Washington, like the other states that made big cuts during the Great Recession, experienced a slower economic recovery than the states that increased investment.
Public institutions are vital to the communities we live in. Western State Hospital, where I am a psychiatric social worker, is the third-largest employer in Pierce County. A cut there is a cut to the community and to the small businesses that public servants support.
Knee-jerk cuts and staff reductions a decade ago didn’t just make my hospital one of the state’s most dangerous places to work, or lead to the loss of $50 million a year in federal funding, they also accelerated inequality.
The public sector is the most important source of employment for Black Americans. Hundreds of thousands of public-sector jobs were lost during the last recession, and a disproportionate number of them were held by Black civil servants, especially women.
Washington can’t overcome the pandemic, recover from the recession or prevent further racial injustice if we balance the budget on public servants’ backs. We must fix the upside-down taxation system that starves this state of revenue and gives billionaires a free ride.
Washington has the most regressive tax structure in the United States. Absent a state income tax, those who make the least pay six times more of their income in taxes than those who make the most. Budget shortfalls and cuts to services are baked into the system, and powerful special interests have fought to keep it that way.
The last attempt to establish a progressive income tax in this state was defeated with huge donations from billionaire Steve Ballmer, formerly of Microsoft, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who is $73 billion richer this year, thanks partly to a pandemic-driven surge in online shopping.
Imagine how much better off our state would be, how much stronger our education system, hospitals and infrastructure would be, if billionaires like Bezos and Ballmer had the same tax burden as the public servants who are now being threatened with the reopening of their contracts, with furloughs and pink slips.
A progressive revenue solution is long overdue, and now is the best time in our lifetimes to get it done. Washington residents overwhelmingly support revenue reform over public disinvestment.
Some 63% of likely Washington voters support raising taxes on the wealthiest to kick start the economy and support workers, and only 31% would rather cut services than find new revenue sources, according to a late April poll of 500 Washington residents.
It’s decision time. We can prepare for a long, painful economic recovery and fire the very people we need to get us through this recession, or we can ask that the billionaires start investing in Washington’s future.