by John Stafford
As 2016 approaches, it is important to consider public policy progress in Seattle, King County, and Washington State during the prior year. The purpose of this retrospective is to reflect on achievements, opportunities and obstacles as a means of establishing an appropriate policy strategy for the upcoming year. This article will start by considering policy progress in several areas – economic; education; housing and transportation; elections; environmental; social; and taxation/revenue. It will conclude with several observations, and implications for 2016.
The phase in of Seattle’s 2014 $15/hour minimum wage law began in 2015 (with an increase to $11/hour on April 1). Thus far, there have not been significant adverse consequences (although conservative critics have worked hard to try and identify some). The unemployment rate continues to decline and is lower than the national average for similar metropolitan areas. Thus, Seattle’s experience appears likely to corroborate earlier research by Berkeley economist Michael Reich (and others) that suggests that a significant increase in the minimum wage leads to myriad economic effects, with net positive results. Importantly, other cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tacoma, New York (and perhaps Washington, D.C. in 2016) are following Seattle’s lead. In the 2015 Washington State Legislature, a measure to institute a $12 minimum wage statewide did not pass, but this will likely be reintroduced in future sessions. In an era defined by all-time highs in income inequalities, increases in the minimum wage are critical. Indeed, a number of speakers (from Joseph Stiglitz to Robert Reich) have come to Seattle in praise of the city’s efforts in this area.
In 2015, the Seattle City Council also passed legislation calling for paid parental leave (up to four weeks) for city employees, the first Pacific Northwest city to do so. Mayor Murray noted that the U.S. is, “the only developed nation in the world without a statutory right to paid parental leave” (Seattle Times, 4/13/15).
In 2015, the state’s K-12 education spending was increased by $1.2 BB to partially comply with the McCleary decision. However, the Legislature is still being held in contempt of court for not adequately complying with McCleary in two critical areas: failing to identify a funding source to support spending increases in subsequent years, and failing to address levy issues.
The State Supreme Court also ruled that the state’s 11 charter schools are not common schools, because while they receive public funds, they do not have publically elected boards. Thus, they will no longer be eligible for public funding (although alternative options are currently being explored).
Also in 2015, the King County Best Starts for Kids Initiative was passed, and Seattle implemented its 2014 subsidized preschool program. Both of these endeavors demonstrate the region’s commitment to early learning, which holds promise for reducing Seattle’s glaring and persistent racial achievement gaps in K-12 education.
Finally, at the university level, the State Legislature committed to lowering tuition rates. Enthusiasm for this progress must be tempered by the fact that during the Great Recession, Washington State raised tuition more than any other state, and by the fact that there was inadequate consideration given to funding need-based scholarships.
HOUSING AND TRANSPORTATION
As Seattle grows, developers seek zoning concessions to enable more development, while housing advocates seek to maintain/increase affordable housing. In 2015, Seattle conducted its HALA (Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda) process to seek a “grand bargain” between these conflicting interests. The result was a report with 65 recommendations, including the use of mandatory inclusionary zoning for residential developers (requiring them to set aside a portion of new development for affordable units), and linkage fees for commercial developers (requiring them to pay a fee to support affordable housing initiatives). The mayor declared this compromise a victory, while many housing advocates felt that it was skewed in the interest of developers. Rent control also emerged as a hotly debated topic, with the City Council passing a rent-control resolution calling for the state to provide localities with more flexibility (i.e., to lift the statewide ban) on rent control.
Poverty and homelessness remain significant challenges in Seattle. Seattle announced the opening of several new homeless encampments. In addition, Mayor Murray and County Executive Constantine signed Emergency Proclamations regarding homelessness, and Seattle introduced over $5 million in new spending to provide increased services.
In 2015, the state passed a $16 billion transportation budget. This included $15 billion in new taxing authority for Sound Transit’s Phase Iii — an extension of the light rail program from Tacoma to Everett (with other additions). At the local level, Seattle passed the massive $930 million “Move Seattle” Transportation Levy. As the demographic boom contributes to traffic congestion, voters are responding with increased funding for new transportation projects.
In 2015, Seattle held district elections – seven of its nine city council seats were contested at the district level (rather than at-large). Partially as a result, the city will have a diverse council: five women, four minority members, and a socialist. Yakima, which also conducted district elections for the first time (under court order), will also increase the diversity of its council – three of its seats were won by Latinos (all females). Thus, a city with a roughly 40% Latino population will now have a council comprised of roughly 40% Latino representatives. At the state level, a measure to extend district voting statewide did not pass in the 2015 State Legislature, but will surely reappear.
Campaign finance continues to be a major problem — voters are tired of the excessive role of corporate expenditures dominating local campaigns. Record amounts of money were spend in the Carol Gregory (D) -Teri Hickel (R) race for State Representative in the 30th Legislative District (won by Hickel), and the Seattle City Council District Three race between Kshama Sawant and Pamela Banks also generated record funding.
Two major campaign finance initiatives were introduced in 2015. “Honest Elections Seattle”, a Seattle initiative to encourage greater civic participation in elections, passed by over 25%. A statewide petition (I-735) calling for the repeal of the infamous Citizens United Decision, is currently gathering signatures. Voters are clearly tired of corporate-driven elections. It is worth noting that voter turnout in the 2015 King County Election was abysmal – under 40%, the lowest level in decades.
Washington State has demonstrated initiative, but not a well-coordinated approach, to the issue of climate change – clearly the greatest public policy issue of our time. Governor Inslee’s Cap-and-Trade bill was not passed by the 2015 State Legislature, and it did not even pass out of the Democratic-controlled House (primarily for political reasons). Nonetheless, citizen groups are taking important action in this area. Carbon Washington’s I-732 proposal for a revenue-neutral carbon tax is completing its signature gathering phase, and will likely end up on the 2016 ballot. It is also possible that the Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy will introduce a carbon pricing proposal. While it is encouraging that viable proposals to establish a price on carbon in Washington State are emerging, there has not been effective integration between the various sponsoring groups and individuals, leading to a somewhat divisive situation in need of leadership and coordination.
There has been climate change action on other fronts in 2015 – including protests over Shell’s Arctic drilling plans and rig mooring at Seattle’s Terminal Five, protests over the proposed Tesora-Savage energy distribution facility in Vancouver, the Gates Divest movement, efforts to limit and regulate oil train movement across the state, and an upcoming legislative measure to extend solar tax credits.
There has been some progress on gun control in Washington State. The 2014, I-594 (to close background check loopholes) was followed by the 2015 ban of openly carried weapons in the state legislative viewing galleries, and the Seattle City Council’s tax on guns and munitions. There has also been progress in police reform in Seattle. The new police chief (Kathleen O’Toole) has been well-received, and there has also been progress in compliance with the federal consent decree. Nonetheless, although advances are being made, more work is clearly needed in these areas.
The 2015 State Legislature passed legislation to rationalize its two marijuana markets – medical and recreational.
Also, Governor Inslee has advocated for what I believe is clearly the correct stance on Syrian Refugees. Inslee’s approach – allowing Syrian refugees (after systematic vetting) to relocate to Washington State, recalls the position that former Governor Dan Evans took with respect to refugees from Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Evans’ decision to allow refugees to come to Washington State, though controversial at the time, is now widely heralded as having been the appropriate way to deal with this challenge.
TAXATION AND REVENUE
The revenue situation in Washington State remains bleak. In my view, the single most critical state issue remains the state’s tax structure: Washington has become a low tax state (14th lowest in the nation in state and local taxes as a percentage of personal income), and it has the most regressive tax system in the state. It is crucial to understand that these two phenomena are linked. Maintaining regressivity is the conservatives’ tactic for keeping taxes low. A highly regressive tax structure forces Democrats to finance new spending by placing the financial burden on the lower and middle classes – their constituent base. That is, a regressive tax structure forces Democratic policy to proceed by damaging itself. In so doing, it restrains the Democratic policy agenda.
As is commonly known, Washington State is one of a few states without an income tax, and one of a few states without a capital gains tax. In 2015, a capital gains tax proposal was introduced in the State Legislature, but it was not passed. In my view, the Democratic Party should have taken a stand on this tax, and been willing to endure a government shutdown to insist on its passage. Finally, it is important to note the obvious connection between Washington’s low tax status, and the myriad lawsuits that embroil the state (over K-12 education with McCleary, over mental health capacity, over DSHS caseloads, etc.). It is inefficient to operate an under-funded state.
CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS
Several themes emerge from this review. First, there has been a flurry of progressive activity in Seattle, King County, and Washington State over the course of 2015. As federal governmental institutions (e.g., Congress) have become increasingly ineffectual at implementing meaningful policy change, the burden for doing so has devolved to the state and local level. Seattle in particular has emerged as a national leader in launching local policy change that then spreads nationally, and on a broad range of issues (minimum wage, parental leave, marriage equality, marijuana, etc.). Second, there is considerable opportunity for more momentous change in a variety of areas. The most important of these is climate change. There needs to be more effective liberal leadership for developing a well-coordinated strategy for implementing a price on carbon in Washington State. A fragmented, piecemeal approach is unlikely to be successful. Third, there remains the glaring need to address the tax structure problem in the state. This will require a level of political courage that has thus far been absent on this issue. Failing to address the low-tax, high-regressivity nature of our tax structure will threaten progressive causes in Washington State. Fourth, and unmentioned until now, Democrats must be alarmed by their ever declining majority in the Washington State House – it fell to 50-48 in 2015, a precipitous drop from the 63-35 advantage in 2008. It goes without saying that the loss of the House would be devastating for progressive policy in Washington State.
In sum, policy development in 2015 in Seattle, King County, and Washington State provided much to be proud of; it indicated some clear priorities for 2016; and it came in a context with warning signs.
John Stafford is a substitute teacher for Seattle Public Schools and a former management consultant in corporate strategy. He recently completed a run for State Senate in the 37th District. He is writing a monthly article on public policy for the South Seattle Emerald.