It is no surprise that we are focused almost entirely on the political goings-on in Washington, D.C. But while all eyes appear to be on former President Donald Trump, the contest for Speaker of the House and President Joseph Biden’s agenda for America, it is really the state legislature that can have profound impacts on people’s wellbeing and welfare in this Washington. It is through state lawmaking — including the legislature and initiative process — that we benefit the residents of our state.
While the federal minimum wage is stuck at $7.25, with the wage for tipped workers at $2.13, Washington state’s minimum wage for all workers will be $15.74 on New Year’s Day. While Congress has failed to pass a federal paid family and medical leave law, the Washington legislature passed one here in 2017 that covers all workers and guarantees 12 to 18 weeks of paid leave for pregnancy, infant care and your own off-the-job health crises. The list goes on, and the job of state legislators should be to make that list even longer in 2023, building the social contract and shared wellbeing with residents of our state.
While Congress will see split control between a Democratic (sort of) Senate and a Republican (sort of) House, in our state the Democrats control the legislature. In fact, they picked up seats in the 2022 elections. The House Democrats now have a 57-to-41 majority, and the Senate Democrats have a 30-to-19 majority. With Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, the real question is what the Democrats will do with their majorities.
The natural inclination of almost all legislators (aided by their corporate lobbyists) is to tinker with the status quo as opposed to catalyzing actual systemic progress. But right now we need systemic progress and, actually, systemic reversal of some of the budget measures that the Democratic-controlled legislature put into effect in the past 12 years.
So here’s a start for the legislature: focus on higher education and child care. In 2010, during the worldwide recession sponsored by Kerry Killinger of the then-bankrupt Washington Mutual Bank, Killinger walked free and left the state to deal with the fiscal crisis he created. The state, led by Gov. Christine Gregoire and the Democratic legislature, decided the best way to deal with the crisis was to defund public services, which they did. Do you wonder where the student debt crisis came from? Blame the defunding of higher education and the consequent skyrocketing tuition for higher education. When Gregoire was at the University of Washington, tuition for a Washington state resident cost less than $1,500 per year in today’s dollars. Now it exceeds $12,000. In 1980, tuition at community colleges was about $800 in today’s dollars. Now it exceeds $4,000. In 2010, enrollment in community colleges exceeded 200,000. Last year, enrollment was down to 130,000. That says a lot about the stagnation of enrollment, even as the state’s population climbs toward 8 million residents.
In Seattle, public high school students can attend community college for free for two years, thanks to the Seattle Promise program. How much would it cost the state to provide similar access for students at all community colleges around the state? About $350 million a year. It would cost another $700 million if the legislature made four-year colleges free, too. That’s $1.1 billion a year. It sounds like a big number, but it is exactly what the state has been disinvesting annually from public higher education for the past decade. Time to make college affordable, like it was when Inslee was at the University of Washington.
Early learning and child care provide the foundation for children entering K-12. Just as teachers are fundamental to K-12 education, child caregivers provide the education, love and guidance which enables little kids to thrive. But these teachers — considered essential workers — get paid just enough to work their way into poverty. Their average pay is actually the minimum wage. We have a system that fundamentally disrespects child care teachers. Child care is a public good, just like K-12, but it receives a pittance of public funding. So parents pay child care bills in the tens of thousands of dollars, and child care workers live in poverty.
In 2005, the legislature actually passed a wage ladder for child care teachers, which was immensely popular and successful. Teachers got paid more, stayed on the job and went to community college for more education. Their morale went up, and the quality of care went up. After the fiscal crisis kicked in, the legislature defunded the wage ladder and has never refunded it. So, we are stuck with lots of hurrahs for child care workers but no real money for them.
This year, the legislature could actually show some respect for child care workers and fund compensation for them. Getting child care workers to the same level as classified staff in the state would cost about $350 million a year. Getting them to K-12 teachers’ compensation would cost about $1 billion a year.
So that’s about $2 billion a year to build back the bookends of education. Where would that money come from? There is an easy and common sense answer. A 1 percent tax on intangible wealth in excess of $1 billion would raise about $2.5 billion a year. Instead of having $111 billion, Jeff Bezos would have $110 billion. Howard Schultz, the Starbucks union buster, would see his $3.7 billion drop to $3.66 billion. The legislature considered a bill to tax the oligarchs of our state last year but never acted.
Now is the time to act and demonstrate true leadership in building back our commonwealth and common wellbeing.
Read more of the Dec. 28, 2022-Jan. 3, 2023 issue.