September 12, 2004

Picking a Governor, Picking a Future...

With days to go before the Democratic primary in Washington state, I have only one candidate dilemma to resolve, but it’s important.

Ron Sims has put forward what I consider the most audacious, ambitious and effective tax plan for this state that I have ever seen. I keep asking people that juggle numbers for a living for their opinions, and they keep telling me that it all works.

I also know that Ron Sims is a man that a lot of people love to not trust. He has to deal with a very contentious county, and John Spellman, Randy Revelle and Tim Hill often had to be just as contentious and just as ruthless to accomplish tasks in a region that calls a neverending fight over various issues of our community “reaching consensus.” (Case in point – the debate over the Seattle monorail that’ll never end, even years after all four lines are built.) I also think that this is a region that has never, ever forgiven its politicians for forcing Safeco Field and its attendant football stadium down the public’s throats. The Boeing tax exemptions and the most recent actions to force light rail through I-90, most specifically through Mercer Island, with minimal input from the community, will simply keep the wounds open, and the person most likely to bear the brunt of that situation, fairly or unfairly, is Ron Sims.

Christine Gregoire led the way to an effective class action suit against cigarette companies, and while the office of the Attorney General has had a couple of rocky bumps to deal with (especially the recent Kappa Sigma incident, which should be enough get her campaign manager fired), she is probably the most well recognized state official after Governor Locke. She’s definitely the most well-respected state official in the suburbs of this state, where most statewide races will be decided.

She also is pushing the “inevitable choice of the people” button so hard that she’s turning off potential field workers for her possible general campaign against Dino Rossi, not to mention the voters themselves, if she wins. People want to feel they are courted by the politician in this state, not vice versa. Not showing up for the recent potential three-way debate only exacerbates this situation.

But the biggest problem is that she brings more of the same under the Democratic label within this state, and that isn’t enough for the long run. Booth Gardner and Gary Locke collected a great deal of political capital in their time in office, but they were never able or willing to make use of that capital to push for fundamental change in this state where needed most. Mike Lowry is often cited as an example of “too far too fast”, but a more accurate example would be that his administration was when the Republicans had their most cohesive and aggressive period in recent memory, and the Democratic leadership in this state was caught flat-footed.

This, in turn, points at a more endemic issue for the Democrats in Washington state. California is presently stuck with a Republican governor in large part because the Democrats there considered themselves to have a majority that couldn’t be usurped. That made them the status quo, and the simple truth is that, over time, when the status quo isn’t working for a majority of voters, no matter how wacky the alternative, that alternative will be voted in. Don’t believe me? Two words – Ronald Reagan. (And that happened both in the California Governor’s race in 1966 as well as the 1980 Presidential election.)

Dino Rossi is already making use of this point. His first radio ad, with the “Aw, shucks” attitude that screams of Reagan’s style, talks about 20 years “of doing the same thing over and over again,” and how he was able to balance the state budget last year without hurting the poor and those in need. You can say that the Democrats surely didn’t control all of the state legislature during that time, and you can prove without much effort that many among the poor and needy did suffer under Rossi’s budget and still do today.

But it speaks to the age old problem – “What did you do for me today?” – that the Democrats have a hard time dealing with in this state. It requires looking innovative, even when it’s just to accomplish commonsense approaches that are more than just necessary, but vital.

If I were in charge of pursuing a basic policy in this state for the Democrats, I would focus on four issues and a centerpiece around which to create the framework for wherever the party wanted to go next.

Replace the existing requirements (60% in favor, 60% of the last major election turnout required to make the vote valid) to pass school bond issues with a simple majority vote with no turnout requirements.

Enact a version of Vermont’s Success by Six program, which was a centerpiece of Governor Dean’s health policy, and one of his most successful.

Enact a version of Arizona’s Clean Elections campaign funding program, which has allowed many qualified but relatively unknown candidates to run and win many races, including their present Governor, Janet Napolitano.

Enact and/or enforce a set of laws for improving commuter conditions. For example, enforce a mandatory tarp law for large, open trucks. This one sounds silly at first glance, but it is a basic road safety rule. Given the increased amount of development in the suburbs and exurbs, not to mention the building of replacement infrastructure and new facilities in our major cities like the Seattle Public Library and Tacoma’s light rail system, this is becoming a necessity. It’s also a visible step towards improving the average person’s commute at a time when neither more roads nor more mass transit can be implemented within the first year with any visible, lasting effect.

The centerpiece should be the enactment of the Sims tax plan. Without it, you simply don’t have the economic framework necessary to improve public policy in this state. No pay increases for teachers. No improvements in health care for those that need it. No incentive, save more tax giveaways, for business to be created or grow, perhaps even to remain, in Washington state. And without that framework towards improvement, the Republicans will eventually take both the Governorship and a majority in the statehouse. Maybe not this election season, given the rage against Bush that seems to be translating into votes for Democrats where we didn’t have them before. But if we win again, and we do more of the same old thing, it will lead to a huge sense of disappointment, and in turn, it will give the Republicans an opening.

What is so great about the Sims tax plan?

First and foremost, it addresses a key fact of economic life today – capital can go wherever it wants to go. If it can make money through outsourcing jobs, it will do that. If it can make money staying here, then it will do that. It tells companies that you don’t have to keep your assets in Washington state, but if you take it out of state, you pay. If capital stays in Washington state, you don’t pay. It beats strict capital transfer laws or capital export tariffs, neither of which are likely to happen anytime soon short of just after a second Great Depression. (This, by the way, is why large companies like Boeing and Microsoft hate this tax plan. Because then they have to invest in our state’s economy, or pay a straightforward tax, just like other individuals do, and which corporations legally declare that they are.)

Second, it turns our state into a jobs incubator. Why? If you are a small business, you’ll naturally put any profits gained back into the business, to make it grow. Thus, no state corporate income tax for you. And no pesky B&O tax on top of that. And since many of our newest wealthy live and die financially by the strength of their business they have invested in creating and developing, it would be a small inconvenience to pay a relatively high income tax (much of which would come back via writeoffs from one’s Federal income tax form) if the business could avoid state taxation altogether.

Third, it cuts Tim Eyman’s strategy for cutting taxes at the knees. His greatest strength has been finding unpopular taxes in our state, like the auto excise tax, that cut across class lines. You simply can’t get much of a new car for under $15,000 these days, and many people felt the bite of that tax severely. With no one paying income taxes on their first $50,000 of income, and no one paying the state income tax (6.5%) or the state’s portion of the property tax, Tim has few cards left to play regarding taxation discontent.

Fourth, it creates a means of keeping the Democratic Party unified after the November elections. The ideas are progressive enough to keep most of the left wing of the party happy, but are also likely to win the approval of the average suburbanite. The Sims tax plan will be the toughest to sell, but with the right approach, it can gather a majority of support for passage.

Looking at things in a cold-blooded fashion, despite her most recent missteps, Christine Gregoire probably will defeat Ron Sims in the primary, and would be most able to defeat Dino Rossi come November. But winning the Governor’s office, winning a majority of the statewide offices, and winning a majority in the state House and Senate are just ashes in the mouth if we don’t revitalize the agenda of the Democratic party and move ourselves out of the rut we currently occupy.

Because if we don’t, the Republicans will. And you already have proof, through the 2000 and 2002 elections, of how far they’re willing to go to change things in their image once they have power.

I still don’t know who to vote for come September 14th for Governor. But I hope, if Ron Sims doesn’t make the cut, he’ll settle for saving this state, and creating a lasting legacy instead, by continuing to push for his tax plan.

Posted by palamedes at September 12, 2004 10:48 PM | WA Politics | Technorati links |

I'm not a big fan of strategic voting, but Sims could be very bad pool.

If Sims is the candidate for governor, the Republican attack line for state leg and senate races will be "a vote for your Democratic legislator is a vote for the income tax". So it could have serious down-ballot consequences to have Sims at the top of the ticket.

Posted by: niq at September 13, 2004 10:18 AM

And the reponse to that attack line would be "a vote for Sims & the democrats is a vote for tax reform. 80% of taxpayers will get a tax cut. The business community will also benefit from tax reform."

A vote for Gregoire is a vote for the status quo.

Posted by: Shannon at September 13, 2004 10:54 AM

You'd be surprised how well a B&O tax repeal might play in the border areas of the state where towns have to compete with Idaho and Oregon. A woman at the convention (I should really write that up) was telling me that a lot of people in her Eastern WA town worked or ran a business in Idaho to avoid the B&O, and lived in Washington to avoid the income tax.

Posted by: natasha at September 13, 2004 12:13 PM

Apparently a lot of local Chambers of Commerce have contacted the Sims campaign throughout the state to get details on the tax reform plan. Very few have walked away unhappy, but do realize the most of the local branches of the organization are very heavily small business-oriented, while the statewide and national organizations are very big business-oriented. Thus, you'll probably see a lot of mixed messages from that front if it becomes an issue to fight for past the primaries.

And niq, while I understand your concerns, please realize that no matter what we do, the Repugs will attack us. Right now it's "there you go again" and "twenty years of the same old thing." They must demonize us to get the votes they need - they have no real policies that are acceptable to a majority of Washingtonians.

I would rather fight tooth and nail for making Washington state better than accept the status quo and know that, eventually, we will lose in the polls due to remaining too static.

Posted by: palamedes at September 13, 2004 05:49 PM