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State also faces a deficit of understanding the other guy

FRIDAY, DEC. 23, 2011

So Kevin Parker said this great thing the other day about the state budget: “We can’t just cut, cut, cut.”

My thoughts exactly. Which was not what I expected to hear when Parker, the Republican who represents Spokane’s 6th District in the state House, sat down with me for a chat. It was not too many months after I’d taken a big, fat rhetorical swing at something else Parker had said about state government: “We don’t have a revenue problem.”

Which were not my thoughts at all. I think we have a huge problem with revenue – i.e., taxation – and I expressed, in terms approaching hostility, my objection to Parker’s statement then. So I expected him to treat me the same way in return – to debate me or correct me or set me straight.

Instead, he said this thing I completely agree with.

I don’t want to overstate our moment of consensus. Parker and I see things differently. But we spent a good bit of time talking about that – about disagreement and demonization, about bomb-throwing and productive discourse, about the evolution of politics and the difficulties facing our state.

Parker says we can’t simply cut services – but he does not support casting the net for new taxes. He opposes this ideologically, and he notes that Washington voters have made their opposition to new taxes apparent.

“The voters have clearly said they don’t want new taxes right now,” he said.

Parker owns the Dutch Bros. Coffee shops around town. He likens the state budget to his business accounts: Overall revenues are expected to grow by 7 percent in the coming budget, he says, and that should be manageable. He resists the notion that the budget has been cut at all. What’s happened, he says, is that planned spending increases have been canceled.

“Why is it we can’t balance our books?” he asks. “If our coffee shops were up 7 percent and I can’t balance the books, then something is wrong.”

This is somewhat semantic. The state has eliminated billions of dollars in services. There are fewer teachers in classrooms with more students, fewer families receiving health care coverage, and on and on. To note the 7 percent increase all by itself is, I think, to skip important context. The state’s revenues are only “up” if you don’t look at where they were just six years ago. According to a chart on Parker’s own website, the projected revenues for 2013 are, in constant dollars, lower than the revenue for 2007.

Parker said three things are putting the hurt on the state budget: the rising costs associated with current levels of service in programs; the increased demand for those services as the economy stays lousy; and costs associated with pensions.

As an example, he notes that caseloads for state services for the developmentally disabled are staying about the same, but the costs to provide that same level of service are up almost 13 percent.

“When that is happening in about 1,000 programs all across the state, money suddenly becomes tight,” he said.

I’d love to see us correct this partly through methods that seem impossible politically – shifting to a progressive income tax, levying a tax on capital gains, finding ways to support our schools and roads and parks and social services in addition to the cutting that we have done and will do.

Parker won’t support new taxes, though he says he’d like to see tax reform and more pro-business policies. Like a lot of people in his party, he has faith that goosing business with incentives and lightening the regulatory load pays off down the road, in more jobs and more tax revenue. He’d like to see expensive state services contracted to the private sector.

It sounds kind of like an all-cuts approach to me – all cuts for now, and wait for the economic rose to bloom. Don’t these unsustainable budget figures cry out for some form of modest, added taxation?

“We feel like unless there’s reform, it’s a moot point,” he said.

The state budget is bleeding money through fraud and waste, he said. Parker mentioned one of the GOP’s greatest hits: EBT card fraud, a problem the state discovered and went after and which is nevertheless brought up repeatedly as though that alone can fix all our problems.

I am dubious about Parker’s ideas. Honestly, I am beyond dubious. I feel that talking about exposing welfare fraud and privatizing services in hypothetical terms while the only tool on the table is an ax won’t get us where we need to go. It will simply get us to the place Parker insists he doesn’t want to go: cut cut cut.

But it began to strike me, as we talked, that we were engaging in the debate that is enraging a lot of us every single day, without being enraged about it. This is to Parker’s credit, not mine. I am, more and more, angered about our politics. In many ways, I feel precisely like the people on the other side of the argument: Everything is going to hell, due entirely to people who don’t agree with me.

But we are more than the sum of our political opinions. It is a very obvious lesson, and it’s one that some of us have to learn a lot. So, in the spirit of Christmas, a Grinch sat down with a Who. I’m pretty sure I was the green one.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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