Raising revenue the only cost-effective answer to budget shortfall

One of the most popular and oft-repeated cliches in American history, which comes to us from Benjamin Franklin, humorously posits that “in the world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.”

This short phrase, which is both simple and concrete, has spawned many variations over time, but all of them contain the memorable words “death and taxes.”

The first of the two — death — is a certainty that we have no control over. We can prolong our lives by eating healthy and exercising regularly, but we will all eventually die. Taxes, however, are a human invention that came about because we live together as a species.

In a democratic society, taxes are not evil, or even a necessary evil. They’re just necessary. We do not, in our separate and individual capacities, have the wherewithal to provide and maintain all of the services that we want, like roads, schools, libraries, parks, pools, or police and fire protection. It is only by pooling our resources together that we are able to afford these things.

Unfortunately, it seems like we often forget what taxes are really about. It doesn’t help that the word tax itself sounds abstract (and in a negative way). Fortunately, there is a more concrete alternative which dates back to the earliest days of our country: common wealth. Our common wealth is the collective sum of the membership fees we each pay (so to speak) to live in this great place called Washington.

Regrettably, the future of the Evergreen State is currently threatened by a huge budget shortfall that will, if left unaddressed, wipe out many of our most critical public services, which many families, students, and seniors heavily rely on today.

These services cannot be preserved through “belt-tightening” or “waste elimination.” The mythical dollars that critics claim can be saved if only government were less bloated. They just don’t exist. A federal aid package for states would be a godsend, but it is highly unlikely that any such aid package will be forthcoming from Congress and President Barack Obama.

That means we’re on our own.

The only way we can save vital services like the Basic Health Plan from destruction is to raise revenue. Gov. Gregoire and Democratic legislative leaders have already declared their intention to do so, and they are likely to focus on repealing unneeded and outdated tax exemptions, increasing fees, and raising sin taxes. Increasing the sales tax is a possibility that will be considered, but there is no interest in raising either the state property tax levy or the business and occupation.

Despite what many newspaper editorial boards, Tim Eyman, and Republican legislators would have us believe, it is actually smart and cost effective for us to close this shortfall by raising revenue.

The alternative is cutting students off financial aid, destroying health care coverage for hurting families, and abandoning seniors. That is not only immoral but impractical. How does increasing the size of the population that needs help get us out of this recession? How is our economy strengthened by pulling out the supports from under people who are trying to get back on their feet?

We can’t end problems like homelessness by declaring such conditions to be illegal. Similarly, we can’t expect our economy and our state to recover by letting our common wealth deteriorate and fall apart. It’s counterproductive.

We actually rely more on public services in hard times then we do in prosperous times. If we pass the “balanced” budget that Gregoire was required to put together by law, we’ll have more crowded emergency rooms, longer lines at food banks, and more people looking for jobs without aid to help them get by in the meantime.

The supplemental budget shortfall the state faces now is actually not as large as the shortfall legislators had to deal with in 2009, but it is uglier.

That’s because legislators have already used federal aid as a crutch, tapped the rainy day fund, frozen salaries of state employees, implemented wide-ranging cuts, and resorted to accounting tricks. What could be done to reduce the state’s expenses has already been done. The one thing legislators did not do in 2009 is raise revenue, because it takes political courage to raise revenue.

But now there are no shortcuts left. Our elected leaders must make a crucial choice in this legislative session: Dismantle many of our most vital public services, or save them by raising revenue. The latter is the only option that is both morally defensible and cost effective.

Long-time Eastside resident Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute. Villeneuve can be reached at andrew@nwprogressive.org.

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