Are we ready to change the culture in Olympia?

Everyone knows Washington faces major challenges. With declining jobs came declining revenue, meaning everyone from local communities to state government felt the crunch. While most Washingtonians agree that education must be protected, transportation must be improved, and jobs must be created, the differences on how to get there can sometimes seem insurmountable.

There are three different viewpoints on how to solve the budget crisis and achieve our objectives:

1. Increase revenues, hoping not to place an undue burden on working families.

2. Cut most taxes. Employers will use the savings to hire more workers who will then spend more. Even at lower tax levels, increased spending will more than make up the revenue.

3. Slash spending, and essentially turn over public services to the private sector.

Experience tells us none of these approaches will completely solve our problems even though each has strong advocates.

In the first case, no one likes being taxed, making this the most politically risky of any solution. Additionally, with taxes more unpopular than ever, there’s the added risk that any new taxes will end up the subject of a grassroots initiative (such as soda taxes this year) or be brought to court.

In the second case, history has proven cutting taxes does not lead to revenue or job growth. Federal taxes are lower now than at any point since 2000, yet the job market remains stagnant and the economy is recovering at a snail’s pace.

Finally, privatization might (or might not) save tax dollars, but what happens when we assign public services to corporations who are more concerned about the bottom line than the public good? Other states have found companies with deep pockets often dominate the bidding process. New Jersey’s Asbury Park Press, for instance, noted in a July 15, 2010 editorial that when New Jersey privatized vehicle emissions inspection, the resulting mess took years to straighten out due to a corporate bidder with political ties.

If none of these by themselves will solve our issues, what will? The question isn’t new. Answering it is going to require working across party lines. Ideologies run deep in Olympia, both on the right and the left. It’s not even traditional Democratic and Republican divisions, as evidenced by the difficulty Democrats had in agreeing on a budget amongst themselves. The problem is ideology and lack of openness to new concepts. A deep devotion to one of the three options outlined above can blind legislators to other ideas, or even to combinations of ideas.

The next legislative session will face deeper problems as revenue continues to fall below projections. Will legislators hold to preconceived ideas and prompt yet another special session? Will ideology again carry the day? Will we continue to see old ideas and divisions repackaged into fancy-sounding legislation that simply retreads old ground with new slogans? None of us can afford that.

We must take a new approach in the next session. More focus on ideas and less focus on ideology will allow us to start working together. The ability to listen and debate in good faith, along with a willingness to abandon hardened positions, is key to managing the crisis.

The real question is: Are we ready to change the culture in Olympia? There’s only one answer, and it had better be “Yes”.

Eleanor Walters is a candidate for State Representative, Position 1, in the 39th Legislative District.

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