Tea party, big business brew a kettle of paralysis
Do you remember the name of the U.S. Senate candidate whose signs were plastered up and down I-5 this summer? I had to look that one up: Clint Didier. How soon we forget. But maybe that has something to do with the tea party only selling its brew successfully east of the Cascades.
In the 1st Congressional District, Jay Inslee won going away, leaving an angry tea party participant by the name of James Watkins in his wake. In the 2nd District, the very conservative John Koster couldn't quite find the votes to unseat Rick Larsen. Democrats kept slimmed down majorities in the Legislature.
The big whopper was the U.S. Senate race, with Dino Rossi coming up short in a statewide contest for the third time in a row. So much for the tea party with respect to our elected officials.
On the state ballot initiatives, however, tea party anger was mixed with big money, stirred vigorously and poured freely. Take Initiative 1107. This was the measure to repeal a tax on soda and candy that prevented even deeper cuts to education and social services. Who won this initiative? Coca Cola and Pepsi.
The American Beverage Association wrote, bought and paid for Initiative 1107 with more than $16 million. It paid more than $12 for each vote it got. With a $16 million piggybank, you can say just about anything without worrying about whether it's the truth. Is your kid's class size close to 35? Did your neighbor lose health care coverage? Have a tea party!
How about Steve Ballmer, Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen? They are among the wealthiest people on the planet. They don't seem like the typical tea party activists. But they stepped up to fund the opposition to Initiative 1098, which proposed an income tax on the wealthy and a tax decrease on 95 percent of taxpayers. Rather than even attempting to argue that people with incomes over $400,000 shouldn't pay a little more for education and health care, they marketed fear that faceless politicians magically immune from the democratic process would extend an income tax to the struggling middle class. The proponents, including me, got whupped.
Tim Eyman joined the party with an initiative to handcuff the Legislature with a minority veto of tax measures (I-1053). BP contributed $50,000, Tesoro $40,000 and Conoco $25,000 to Eyman's "grassroots" effort. They didn't want to be asked by the Legislature to clean up some of the pollution they've caused. JPMorgan Chase contributed $30,000 and Bank of America $10,000 - chump change for these banks, which the taxpayers have bailed out with hundreds of the billions of dollars. Mr. Eyman, courtesy of big finance and big oil, soaked the Legislature with tea.
So we have this weird dynamic where we elect legislators to provide the public services and public investments that we desperately need and turn our back on those that just rant against government. But then we take away the tools for enabling investment in these public services by reducing public revenues and refusing to approve new taxes that the vast majority of us will never pay.
It is not as if the people reject all sorts of taxes. When they see a direct connection to their quality of life and safety, they generally support property tax levies. That's how emergency medical services and fire protection levies passed in Stanwood, Darrington, Arlington, Mill Creek and Silvana. But fire protection is right at hand, while education is a long-term investment.
The day after the election, I took some Ballard High School cross country kids on a run. We started at the campus - a public school built with taxpayer dollars and staffed with teachers paid by the taxpayers. We ran through the streets and parks of Ballard, paid for by taxpayers. We ended up at Shilshole Beach, we dared each other to go swimming, which we did, in a crystal clear Puget Sound kept that way by good government regulations and tertiary sewage treatment, paid for by the taxpayers.
It made all of us appreciate the great quality of life we have here in Washington. That's only possible if we are willing as citizens to invest in our public services for our children, our parents, our environment and ourselves.
That's not a bargain that the tea party wants to celebrate, but it is a bargain for our democracy. It is worth the investment.
John Burbank is executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org). His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.