OLYMPIA – The east-west split in Washington is probably never as interesting as in the early weeks of a legislative session, when hope springs eternal in the breasts of legislators with novel if not always practical ideas.
This period sometimes births proposals from Eastern Washington solons to divide the state along the crest of the Cascades and divest the right-thinking folks on the dry side from those people whose repeated exposure to rain, Microsoft money and ferry commutes makes them terrible spendthrifts intent on saddling every business owner, farmer and local official with a mountain of red tape and an army of bureaucrats. The proposal to set up this 51st state, possibly named Lincoln or Columbia, generally gets, at most, a hearing where some West Siders have a chance to suggest good riddance to eastern brethren.
This year a small group of Western Washington legislators propose a remedy for an imbalance they see against their side of the mountains: Counties that receive far more in state money than they send to Olympia in taxes could be dissolved and attached to a neighboring county or divvied among several.
A call for a constitutional amendment to do that follows a widely circulated breakdown of revenues-in, benefits-out for each county from the state Office of Financial Management. It shows that in 2008, the most recent year for such statistics, no county got back exactly what it paid in. (Snohomish County came closest at 99 cents on the dollar.)
But eight counties got back more than twice what they put in. Seven of them are eastern and rural: Adams, Asotin, Ferry, Garfield, Lincoln, Stevens and Yakima. At the other end of the spectrum, King County got back about 62 cents for every dollar collected, second only to San Juan County at 46 cents per.
That raises an issue of fundamental fairness, contends Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Sammamish: “Who’s carrying whose weight?”
He sponsored a resolution to allow counties with a history of getting twice as much from the state as paid in to be dissolved. Cutting down on the number of elected officials and combining services would create efficiencies of scale and could save some money, Anderson said.
Not a partisan issue, said Anderson, who noted that those are all Republican counties, but a starting point for discussion. He has two Democratic co-sponsors, Hans Dunshee, of Snohomish, and Reuven Carlyle, of Seattle. Some of those eastern counties are in poor financial shape, he adds, because the Legislature passes laws pushed by West Side public interest groups with rules and restrictions, but no money to pay for them.
It should be noted that leaders of neither party, in either chamber, think much of this idea: “So instead of two small broke counties you’d have one great big broke county,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, of Walla Walla.
“We’ve always emphasized thinking of one Washington. We’re all in this together,” said House Speaker Frank Chopp, of Seattle.
Carlyle floated an even more intriguing, albeit problematic, idea in a blog post last week. To counter Republican calls for a constitutional amendment making permanent the two-thirds majority required for tax increases, he suggested that representatives of “net donor” counties – the ones paying in more than they get back – get two votes on every spending bill; those from counties getting back more than they pay would get one vote. Translation: King and several other Pugetopolis counties would get more say.
“Yes, it would be unconstitutional,” he wrote. “That’s the point. We need the public to engage with us in a serious dialogue about the importance of majority rule and representative democracy.”
Unconstitutionality seems an unpromising start for discussion or anything else, but one never knows. Some years back a young legislator proposed a bill to get rid of districts for state senators and have each county send one senator to Olympia. To get around the problem of the U.S. Supreme Court’s “one person, one vote” rule, she asked Congress to craft a constitutional amendment. The proposal went nowhere. The state representative, after considerably more seasoning in the Legislature, went to Congress.
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