A government divided politically has served Washington state well, writes guest columnist Rodney Tom.
DURING my legislative career, I knocked on more than 32,000 constituent doors in Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond. The one thing I know for certain about voters: most people think both parties are crazy.
They think Democrats want to spend every dollar in their back pocket, and Republicans want to involve themselves in personal social issues that are none of their business. After serving in both Republican and Democrat caucuses while representing the 48th Legislative District in Olympia, I can attest there is no party representing those in the middle who are fiscally prudent and socially progressive.
I was first elected to the House in 2002 as a Republican, but was quickly ostracized for my pro-abortion rights, pro-gay marriage social stances. I found myself agreeing more with Democrats and announced I was changing parties before I was elected to the Senate in 2006. But I continued to chafe at the polarization between the parties.
Both parties catered to their hard-core bases, more interested in scoring political points than resolving real issues. In 2013, another Democrat and I joined with 23 Republicans to form the Majority Coalition Caucus, focusing on a no-new taxes budget prioritized around education. We agreed to stay away from the social issues that divided us.
Most citizens are frustrated by the state Legislature’s continual need for overtime sessions every year. The question is: Would one-party rule solve the problem? We could find out if the Democrats, who control the state House and governor’s mansion, also take the 45th Legislative District seat on this year’s ballot, and flip the now GOP-controlled Senate.
But, I believe we’re better served by a split government, where no single party is in complete control — both at the state and national levels. For our businesses to thrive, they need predictability and moderation, not wild swings from left to right and vice versa.
Unlike the other Washington, here Democrats and Republicans have worked together to achieve great things.
The Senate Majority Coalition advanced the nation’s only four-year balanced-budget requirement, which became law. No longer can budgets be gamed by making large bills due the day after a two-year budget cycle ends. This creates ironclad fiscal discipline.
This year, under pressure from the McCleary school funding court order, several Seattle House Democrats proposed four new taxes totaling $8 billion. That would be on top of the $3 billion in additional revenue since the last budget cycle from statewide economic growth. At the top of their wish list was progress toward a statewide income tax.
The opening gambit was an income tax on capital gains. The next step would be to get the Supreme Court to overturn previous rulings and determine the Legislature could impose a general income tax. Then, some Seattle Democrats hope to have total control of the Legislature and impose a general income tax.
Leaders in the Washington Senate, now controlled by Republicans plus one Democrat, said there was a better way: Take the extra money that has come into state coffers and earmark it for education. Only then, look for any additional revenue needed. This session, to pay for increased education spending, the coalition proposed a property-tax reform that raised taxes in some parts of the state and supported a new tax on internet sales.
As a Democrat, I am sorry to say that, for the 30 years Democrats largely controlled all levers of power in Olympia, we spent expanded revenues more than 2 to 1 on non-education items versus education funding.
Once the bipartisan Senate coalition took control, that trend was reversed. Instead, state budgets have spent new revenue on education at a rate of more than 3 to 1. Education funding has increased 62 percent in the past five years! Education spending went from a low of 38 percent of the state budget when Democrats had complete control of Olympia to now over 50 percent.
In higher education, University of Washington tuition went up 79 percent between 2009 and 2013 under Democratic control. To balance the budget, the Democrats in control picked the pockets of college students and their parents and spent the money elsewhere.
The bipartisan Senate prioritized both education and keeping money in people’s pockets. Since the 2013 split, tuition costs have actually gone down.
CNBC recently named Washington America’s Top State for Business. Two of the highlights were the fact that our economy grew at 3.7 percent in 2016 — almost two and a half times the national rate. The second is that the state has no income tax.
Companies — and their jobs — come to Washington for many reasons, but the dynamic economy and lack of an income tax are two big ones. If taxes become too onerous, jobs can just as easily leave Washington. South Carolina might look good to some. Texas might look good to others.
Jobs change lives. The Democrat and Republicans in the Senate Majority Coalition believe that. That is their focus. They believe that responsible budget policies can help encourage job creation and that a focus on educational outcomes will help prepare people for a super competitive, global jobs market.
Once again, this balance of powers will be tested by a special election in the 45th district with political newcomers running for the seat held by the late Sen. Andy Hill, a Redmond Republican.
We need not act on our anger toward Trump to create political imbalance in our own state. Hyperpartisan rule by either party doesn’t help us heal our political divide or move us forward.
As frustrating as it might be for some, divided state government slows the process down and forces decision-makers to more thoroughly explore wise public policy options. This is good for Washington.
It might be easier to have a house with only dogs or only cats — or with only Democrats. But I prefer we figure out how to all get along together. That is better for us. It is better for our communities. It is better for our state.