Fixing Washington

In this series of articles, Sen. Doug Ericksen discusses the top issues before the state during the 2020 legislative session, and outlines the tough choices that are needed to restore Washington state government to fiscal health and responsibility.

Fixing Washington:

Taxes the real issue of the 2020 legislative session

By Sen. Doug Ericksen

Let me make a prediction about this year’s legislative session, probably the safest prediction ever made. We’re going to hear plenty of talk about raising taxes.

But what we really ought to be doing is cutting them.

Liberal urban majorities in the House and Senate are convinced state government isn’t big enough or powerful enough, and the people aren’t paying enough. Meanwhile, Washington voters are trying to send them a message — enough!

Taxes are the real issue of the 2020 legislative session. That, and Olympia’s hearing problem. Last year, Washington voted for Initiative 976, cutting license-tab renewals to $30. Rather than looking for ways to implement the people’s will, majority Democrats are sitting on their hands and hoping the courts will overturn it.

This session they’ll be pushing low-carbon fuel standards, a carbon tax by a different name. Most of it has nothing to do with fuel content, but with big new taxes on gasoline and diesel – just like the carbon taxes Washington voters rejected in 2016 and 2018.

And we can count on them to promote an income tax – never mind the fact that Washington voters have rejected the idea 10 straight times since 1935.

Voters are fed up with taxes, and who can blame them? We have seen recent tax increases on property, motor fuel, vehicle license tabs, and home sales. Meanwhile, state coffers are bursting with money. Since 2013 a booming state economy has increased state tax collections $20.6 billion, a 66 percent increase in just seven years. We’ve never seen anything like it in the history of our state.

Yet Washington’s big spenders complain the cupboard is bare – because they keep spending every penny we have. They want to fool you with the words they use. They talk about “revenue” instead of tax collections. “Investments” instead of spending. “Clean fuels” instead of higher gas taxes. They’re even calling their income-tax proposal an “excise tax,” as if that makes it smell any better.

Olympia’s big-government advocates just can’t get enough of your money.

Frankly, holding the line on taxes is only part of the solution. We have more than enough to meet the state’s most important needs. We ought to be giving some of that money back to the people who paid it. Over the last few sessions, I have proposed reductions in property and sales taxes, and tough new spending limits to keep government growth within bounds.

I think the people of Washington ought to keep their own money and spend it as they see fit. That’s how our economy grows. The dollars that remain in the private sector create new business opportunities and jobs for working families.

The sad truth is, when the state gets its hands on the people’s money, it disappears into the black hole of state government – and often is spent unwisely.

Here’s one for you: Legislators and state employees who drive electric cars don’t have to pay when they plug into a stall at a state parking lot. You pay the bill with your taxes. I call it a waste of taxpayer money.

Last November’s vote shows the people have had it. Watch for a showdown this year. To address Seattle’s rampant homeless problem, urban legislators want to tap the state’s rainy-day fund – a fund that is supposed to cover unanticipated financial emergencies, not a problem created by years of misguided local-government policy. Rainy-day spending would require Republican votes, and my colleagues and I are drawing the line. We’re with the people on this one. Enough.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, represents Whatcom County’s 42nd Legislative District.

 

Fixing Washington:

A four-point plan to reduce homelessness, make cities safer, help people

Tent city in downtown Olympia.

By Sen. Doug Ericksen

  • Spend less, not more.
  • Enforce drug and vagrancy laws
  • Secure our borders and enforce immigration laws.
  • Get people the help they need.

The thinking around the Capitol is that any problem can be solved if you just spend enough money. Which is why homelessness seems so baffling. How come the more we spend, the worse the problem gets?

Just look at the streets of Bellingham, and you’ll see what I mean. Or Seattle, Olympia and Spokane. Even the Democrats who hold majorities in the House and Senate have to admit homeless policies in some of our state’s largest cities are failing. But they don’t have any better ideas, so one of our biggest debates this year is whether to spend hundreds of millions more to help them continue to fail.

Can we turn this around? Of course we can. But first we have to admit what we are doing isn’t working. Our cities need to stop confusing tolerance with compassion. And in Olympia, we need to stop enabling their failure. Let me tell you what I mean, with a four-point plan that can make a difference.

Spend less, not more. Right now, the state spends $625 million every two years on homelessness, and we’re being asked to spend $300 million more. But state spending is just the start. When all costs are considered, public and private, the Puget Sound Business Journal tells us King County alone spends over $1 billion annually. Many of these programs are worthwhile. But programs aimed at serving those on the street, rather than getting them off the street, are not the answer. We should look to communities that are achieving success, and implement their solutions statewide. We should empower community non-profits and church groups to continue their efforts, and must remember that government-subsidized housing is often the most expensive option.

Enforce drug and vagrancy laws. Many of our larger cities are trying to be sensitive to those who choose “alternative lifestyles.” Even if those lifestyles mean tent cities in the heart of town, human waste in the streets, harassment of passersby for small change, the misery of drug addiction and criminal behavior to support it. Their thinking is that if the homeless choose not to enter treatment programs and utilize other services that require them to change their behavior, who has the right to tell them otherwise? We certainly do, and the laws we already have on the books give us the tools we need.

Secure our borders and assist federal immigration-enforcement agencies. We need to stop the drain on our social services and end government-sanctioned efforts to flout immigration laws. This is as much a law-enforcement issue as a social-service issue, and it is a problem we cannot ignore.

Get people the help they need. Shelter and treatment should be available for all who play by the rules – and we need to make it clear there are consequences if they do not.

Some local governments are achieving great success with “tough love” programs. In places like Marysville, Burien and Pierce County, social workers accompany police to homeless camps. They make an offer the homeless can’t refuse. Enter treatment, utilize our services, follow the rules – or you can count on us to enforce our laws. But you can’t stay here. Then they follow up on the promise, with jail time.

Many accept the offer. Others take their tents to cities that shrug and enable them to carry on. That’s their problem, not the state’s, and we can leave it to their voters to decide if that is the leadership they want. Activists are trying to blame high rents and free enterprise for what is really a breakdown of civilized conduct. This is nonsense. Rather than building enormous bureaucracies with an interest in ensuring the problem continues, we need to say this stops now. This is what real compassion is all about.

 

Fixing Washington:

Parental choice, more power for local school boards is key to fixing K-12 education

By Sen. Doug Ericksen

When you send your kids to school, would you rather they learn the periodic table of the elements or the 18 forms of gender?

Silly question. If new mandates are approved in Olympia this year, no one will have a choice. Mandatory sex education, starting in kindergarten, is a top agenda item for the Legislature’s urban majority. Not just the birds and the bees, but state-approved theories of gender identity, sexual orientation and relationships, as interpreted by social-activist groups.

Many of us are dumbfounded that the Legislature would intrude in an area best left to parents, to promote what is essentially a political philosophy. And it calls our priorities into question. While activists see our schools as a tool to advance an agenda, the rest of us are more concerned with making sure our schools provide a proper grounding in reading, writing and arithmetic; that they keep our kids challenged and that our children perform at grade level. On this score, many of our schools are failing to deliver, especially in urban areas. There’s a way we can address this issue – by giving parents more choices.

When parents have the ability to choose, every other problem we face in our schools will be on the way to being fixed inside a week.

Here’s how we can do it:

  • Empower parents to decide where and how their children are educated. If a school is failing or a state-mandated curriculum leaves parents uneasy, let them choose a different school. State funding should follow the student. We already do this in a limited way, with charter schools, though the K-12 establishment is doing its best to strangle them in infancy. Charter schools are really just the start – we need a broader approach to give parents more options.
  • Empower local school boards to give them greater control. When we give Olympia too much power over our schools, we allow political factions at the statehouse to dictate what our children are taught. Yet curriculums that satisfy Seattle liberals will never be a good fit for Omak. Instead, we should restore the ability of local school boards and principals to make decisions that suit their communities – and get the state out of the curriculum-setting business.
  • Restructure the relationship between school boards, the community and teachers. Right now the single most powerful player in K-12 education is the state teachers’ union. We can’t blame it for advocating the interests of union members, but we shouldn’t confuse that with support for our hardworking teachers, our students and schools. The union holds all the cards when it negotiates contracts with school boards. It’s why we don’t have merit pay for good teachers, and why seniority is valued more than skill. The Legislature can start by eliminating collective bargaining for teachers. We’ve already done great work in establishing a statewide salary schedule. Salaries are one of the few areas where central control is justifiable – the courts have told us to eliminate local pay disparities, an inconvenient fact Olympia’s urban majority chooses to ignore.

One way to enable this transformation is with a voucher system, making state funding available for schools outside the existing public K-12 system – as I have proposed in Senate Bill 6608. The moment parents start voting with their feet, we can expect school boards to be more responsive to community desires.

We also need to make sure school boards are able to respond. Local decision-makers are best-suited to make what ought to be local decisions. You probably won’t bump into the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee at your local supermarket, but there’s a good chance you’ll see a school board member in the check-out line.

What works in Lynden or Ferndale might be very different than what works for downtown Seattle, Spokane or the Tri-Cities. We need to respect the peoples’ right to make decisions for themselves.

Fixing Washington:

Protecting taxpayers from tax increases, bigger government

March 9, 2020

  • Ericksen plan requires supermajority votes for tax increases
  • Puts budgeting back on track with spending limits, restrictions
  • Provides tax relief, reduces temptation to spend irresponsibly

By Sen. Doug Ericksen

Let’s suppose you get lucky and find 10 grand in the street. You probably wouldn’t make a down payment on a Rolls Royce, because you’d know your next payment might be a problem.

If only Olympia could figure that out. Sustainable budgeting and a few serious reforms could stave off most of the pressure we face every session for enormous tax increases. That would allow us to focus what we really ought to be doing, making sure our spending is efficient and effective, and that taxpayer money goes to the things that are truly important.

Most of us at the statehouse understand this principle. It’s just that many prefer to ignore it. Spending skyrockets when the economy booms, and we face painful retrenchment whenever recession hits. Last time it happened was a decade ago, when the Legislature went on a spending spree just before the Wall Street crash. The state found itself $11 billion in the hole, and the result was the biggest tax increase in state history and massive layoffs of new state hires.

Now we’re poised to repeat that nightmare, after an even bigger run-up in state spending – an 80 percent increase since 2013. The problem is our tendency to spend every dime in state coffers. Most of the time we’re launching and expanding programs we’ll have to support forever. We know good times never last forever, but we just can’t seem to help ourselves. We see it, we spend it.

We can curb this natural tendency to spend ourselves into disaster by building on the best ideas from this state and others. Here’s my prescription:

  • Two-thirds for taxes. Tax increases are really the easy way out – they allow the Legislature to avoid tough choices about spending that will inevitably disappoint politically powerful special-interest groups. By requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to raise taxes, we can ensure both parties must agree a tax increase is the best solution. The people of Washington imposed this requirement by initiative five times over the last 27 years, and it was a smashing success whenever it was in force. Lawmakers were compelled to set priorities. Unfortunately, the state Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that this requirement cannot be imposed by a law or an initiative. Until we are able to pass a constitutional amendment, we can write this requirement into House and Senate rules.
  • Put budgeting back on track with spending limits. We’ve tried this in the past, with the granddaddy of all tax revolts, Initiative 601 in 1993. That measure limited the growth of state spending to a factor of inflation and population growth. The rules remain on the books, but spending advocates quickly undermined the restrictions with accounting tricks. I have introduced legislation that would prohibit the trickery, restore the spending limits, and give the Legislature the flexibility to address immediate problems.

Under my proposal, Senate Bill 5609, when tax collections exceed the spending limit, the money would go to a “state expenditure limit overflow” account. This money could be used for one-time expenses, like state construction projects or highways. Money that isn’t spent in this way would have to be returned to taxpayers in the form of property tax reductions. This way we can make sure extraordinary spikes in tax collections won’t be used to create new obligations we’ll have to fund in future years.

  • Tax relief for citizens. In a separate proposal, SB 5610, I have proposed a reduction in the state sales tax, from 6.5 percent to 6 percent. This would return $1.7 billion to Washington taxpayers every two years and give our economy a shot in the arm. And not just that – by reducing tax collections, we also reduce temptation to spend ourselves into a hole. At the rate money has been gushing into state coffers, we ought to be able to give taxpayers a break.

As long as we have an enormous pile of cash in front of us, we will face an immense temptation to spend and ignore the long-term consequences. Yet there is nothing compassionate about ramping up programs one year and firing all the new hires the next. Better to make sure our spending is sustainable by reducing that pile a bit, returning some of it to the people who paid it, and putting taxpayers first.