The new year brings a new political season to Spokane and all of Washington. Here are some key issues that voters should keep an eye on in 2020 as state and local politics resume.
Growing the economy
In recent years, a booming economy and corresponding tax revenue enabled lawmakers to throw money at just about every passing fancy. Last year, state spending increased about 14% over the previous biennium. Some of that new spending went to important investments such as financial aid and mental health, but the Legislature needs to slow down and pass a sustainable supplemental budget this year that supports both a strong economic environment and managed government growth.
It’s also critical that lawmakers tap the brakes on policies that make the state’s businesses less competitive in the global marketplace. They’ve shown too much willingness of late to burden local businesses, and that will soon catch up with Washington.
In November, voters approved Initiative 976, which slashed car tab fees to $30 per year. In doing so, voters gutted funding for transportation projects across the state. Washington is out $4 billion in state and local transportation revenue over the next six years to fill potholes, repair bridges and ease congestion. Chances are good I-976 will be overturned.
But Washington has already fallen behind on its transportation infrastructure and upkeep. That’s bad for business and bad for average Washingtonians. One analysis estimated that economic loss due to crumbling infrastructure would total $370 billion over the next 20 years – before I-976.
The state cannot afford to leave that gaping pothole in the budget. But where is the money to come from?
The wrong answer to that question, but the one that Democratic lawmakers might gravitate toward, is “new taxes and fees.” I-976 passed with a 6-point majority because Washingtonians are tired of the state nickel-and-diming them.
Rather than new taxes or postponing needed work, Olympia should focus on reprioritizing core services in the general fund. That almost certainly would not fill the entire hole without steep cuts, but it should be the starting point of the conversation.
The governor’s proposed supplemental budget includes $319 million to reduce homelessness. He wants to divert that money from the emergency fund. That funding would help but not solve the problem. The homeless crisis largely will remain a local crisis. Spokane’s new City Council and mayor must make it their top priority.
The need is obvious to anyone who walks the streets. Tents, trash, needles and the other visible signs of homelessness detract from quality of life for all and become a deterrent to tourists who visit once and report back to friends.
More important is the human cost. Homeless residents need assistance. Many suffer from substance use problems or mental health disorders. Others have slipped into homelessness because of job or physical health problems. The immediate need is for additional shelters that can provide a place for people to get off the streets. A bed, warm meals and showers can go a long way to restoring humanity to someone. That’s especially true at this coldest time of year.
Then the city must work with community partners and other local governments on longer-term solutions. They should encourage developers to build more affordable and supportive housing, and work with neighborhoods to welcome economically diverse residents.
Finally the city must implement permanent solutions by connecting homeless residents with services that get them healthy, productive and into a stable life.
Given the anti-tax mood voters expressed with I-976, localities must constrain and prioritize their spending. Former Mayor David Condon and his team made huge strides toward addressing the city’s structural budget deficit. Eight years ago the city was running a deficit and expenses were rising faster than revenues. A booming economy and a focus on efficiency reversed those trends. It’s up to the new administration to stay the course.
Finally, good government is transparent government. As state and local officials get to work, they must ensure that the people of Washington can see what’s happening. That’s generally not a problem with the city, but the Legislature has fought hard for years to keep secrets. Relief arrived just before Christmas, when the state Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers’ records are subject to the public records law. Now we’ll see whether lawmakers embrace the simple idea that government’s business is the people’s business or again turn to legislative legerdemain to hide their work.
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