February 3 was Housing and Homeless Advocacy Day in Olympia. (Photo credit: Bill Rumpf)

At the beginning of the 2020 legislative session, Senator Joe Nguyen made a clarion call for going big. “A short session is not an excuse to do nothing, and definitely not an excuse for incrementalism,” he wrote in The Stranger, urging his colleagues to tax the rich and fund public schools, address housing and homelessness, and fix our regressive tax code.

Three weeks later, it’s disappointing but not surprising that the legislature has failed to show that they’re planning to begin delivering bold, structural change for Washington State. Despite new leadership in the House and the largest Senate majorities in decade, the Democratic majority in Olympia continues to shortchange public services and social needs in order to appease the anti-tax bogeyman. The result is to make it harder for Seattle in particular to address the crisis of inequality and inequity.

We can most clearly see this in the way the legislature treats two ballot initiatives on car tabs and on public schools. Initiate 976 barely passed in 2019, and was rejected in King County and in the Sound Transit district. A judge quickly granted an injunction blocking I-976 from being enforced.

But Democratic legislators are continuing to behave as if their job is to implement I-976 anyway. Despite their constituents rejecting it, the impact to transit and carbon emissions, and the likelihood that the State Supreme Court will overturn it just as they did with Eyman’s original $30 car tabs initiative in 2000, legislators in Olympia are spending valuable time this session trying to deliver the transit cuts Eyman hoped for.

Democratic Senator Marko Liias and several colleagues have co-sponsored legislation that would slash more than $1 billion from Sound Transit by cutting car tab valuation, even though voters in the Sound Transit district rejected I-976 and despite the risk such a cut poses to the agency’s ability to deliver much-needed transit projects.

This is part of a 20-year trend of Democrats using their majorities in Olympia to implement Eyman’s initiatives despite their damaging toll on the state’s ability to properly fund public services. Voters didn’t hand Democrats control of the State Senate in 2017 and expanded majorities in both houses in 2018 in order for them to turn around and hand Eyman the reins.

The legislature doesn’t always act this way when it comes to ballot initiatives. At a recent town hall in the 36th district, progressive activist Summer Stinson contrasted legislators’ eagerness to implement I-976 with five years of feet-dragging on Initiative 1351, which voters approved in November 2014. Her point is excellent and revealing.

I-1351 mandated smaller class sizes in public schools, as well as hiring many more nurses, counselors, and family support workers. Legislators have repeatedly voted to delay implementation of I-1351, despite the fact that ample funding for public education is the state’s paramount duty under the constitution.

This year, in response to a workgroup convened to determine how to address school staffing, the Superintendent of Public Instruction requested HB 2897 and SB 6615, legislation that would phase in the hiring of more teachers, nurses, counselors, and other educators mandated by I-1351. 

Yet these bills aren’t getting the same level of legislative support as are bills to slash car tabs. Not a single Senator who sponsored SB 6606 to cut car tabs is sponsoring SB 6615, whose sole sponsor is Sen. Lisa Wellman.

The message sent to Washingtonians is clear: legislators will move heaven and earth to implement Tim Eyman’s ballot initiatives while undermining initiatives to give a great education to every child.

Even though there is a new Speaker of the House, the basic logic of the Chopp era remains dominant: measures to cut taxes get more attention and support despite the damage done to public services than efforts to fully fund and expand basic public services and solve urgent crises threatening the state. Legislators continue to believe that they will be thrown out of office if they don’t hurry to slash taxes and public services, despite their recent victories in 2018 and the likelihood of larger victories in a November 2020 election dominated by the desire to throw Donald Trump out of the White House.

Senator Joe Ngyuen in Senate Chambers. (State of Washington)

But there is still more time for the legislature to turn this around and take up Sen. Nguyen’s call to take bold action this session. A capital gains tax and new taxes on excessive corporate pay are still alive in Olympia.

We have also been reminded this session that public pressure and grassroots activism can move legislators to overcome their unwillingness to fund public services. Last week’s proposal to allow the Seattle area to pass a payroll tax to fund housing and homeless services is a response to (and an effort to undermine) the growing Tax Amazon movement. But the legislature would never have considered such a tax plan without that pressure from below.

Just as important are the winds of change blowing through the ranks of the Democratic caucuses. Sen. Nguyen was elected in 2018 when Sharon Nelson retired, and his leadership has already demonstrated how critically important it is to fill the ranks of the Seattle delegation in particular with progressive champions.

Here in 2020, we’re already seeing more opportunities to elect new leaders. Representatives Gael Tarleton and Eric Pettigrew have announced their retirements from the legislature, creating two crucial openings to send progressives to Olympia who will actually fight for Seattle and shake up the legislature. If the legislature adjourns next month without taking meaningful action to tax the rich and big corporations in order to fund public schools, protect and expand transit, and address homelessness and the housing crisis, we may also see challenges to incumbent legislators from members of the public who are fed up with inaction.

With five weeks left in the 2020 session, we shall see whether legislators rise to the occasion or once again fail to address our state’s worsening crises.

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Robert Cruickshank

Robert Cruickshank is a transit rider and progressive campaigner who lives in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. From 2011 to 2013 he served as Senior Communications Advisor to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.