Not surprisingly, we are focused almost entirely on the political events taking place in Washington, D.C., but while all eyes are on former President Donald Trump, the contest for Speaker of the House and President Joseph Biden’s agenda for America, they are. Really the state legislature that can have profound effects on the welfare and well-being of the people in this Washington. Through state lawmaking—including the legislature and initiative process—we benefit the people of our state.
While the federal minimum wage is stuck at $7.25, with the pay for tipped workers at $2.13, the Washington state minimum wage for all workers will be $15.74 on New Year’s Day. While Congress failed to pass the Federal Paid Family and Medical Leave Act, the Washington legislature passed a law here in 2017 that covers all workers and guarantees 12 to 18 weeks of paid leave for pregnancy, child care, and your health outside of work. crises. The list goes on, and it should be the job of our state legislators to make that list even longer in 2023, building the social contract and shared well-being with the people of our state.
While Congress will see control split between a Democratic Senate (sort of) and a Republican House of Representatives (sort of), in our state, the Legislature is controlled by Democrats. In fact, they’ve secured seats in the 2022 election. House members now have a majority 57-41, while Senate Democrats have a majority 30-19. With Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, the real question is what the Democrats will do with their majority.
The natural inclination of nearly all lawmakers (with the help of corporate lobbyists) is to manipulate the status quo rather than spur actual systemic progress. But right now we need a systematic advance and, in fact, a systematic reversal of some of the budgetary measures that the Democratic-controlled legislature has put in place in the past 12 years.
So here’s the start of the legislature: focusing on higher education and childcare. In 2010, during a global recession sponsored by Kerry Killinger of the then-bankrupt Washington Mutual Bank, Killinger walked free and left the state to deal with the financial crisis he had 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. Are you wondering where the student debt crisis came from? Blame the defunding of higher education and the consequent skyrocketing tuition fees for higher education. When Gregoire was at the University of Washington, tuition for a resident of Washington state cost less than $1,500 a year in today’s dollars. Now it exceeds $12,000. In 1980, community college tuition was about $800 in today’s dollars. Now it exceeds $4,000. In 2010, community college enrollments exceeded 200,000. Last year, enrollment dropped to 130,000. That says a lot about stagnant school enrollment, even as the state’s population climbs past 8 million.
In Seattle, public high school students can attend community college for free for two years, thanks to the Seattle Promise. How much would it cost the state to provide similar access to students at all community colleges across 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 seems like a big number, but it’s exactly what the country has been investing annually in public higher education for the past decade. It’s time to make colleges more affordable, as it was when Inslee was at the University of Washington.
Early Learning and Child Care provides the foundation for children entering kindergarten through twelfth grade. Just as teachers are central to a K-12 education, child caregivers provide the education, love, and guidance that enable young children to thrive. But these teachers – considered essential workers – are paid just enough to work their way into poverty. Their average wage is actually the minimum wage. We have a system that basically disrespects childcare teachers. Childcare is a public good, as is kindergarten through twelfth grade, but it receives little public funding. So parents pay childcare bills in the tens of thousands of dollars, and childcare workers live in poverty.
In 2005, the legislature did indeed pass a pay scale for childcare teachers, which has been very popular and successful. Teachers earned higher salaries, stayed on the job and went to a community college for further education. Their morale went up, and the quality of care went up. After the outbreak of the financial crisis, the legislature suspended funding for the wage scale and never returned it. So, we are stuck with a lot of urgent work for childcare workers but no real money for them.
This year, the legislature can show some respect for childcare workers and fund compensation for them. Getting childcare workers to the same level as rated employees in the state would cost about $350 million a year. It would cost K-12 teacher compensation about $1 billion a year.
That means about $2 billion a year to rebuild the education ends. Where does this money come from? There is an easy and logical answer. A 1 percent tax on intangible wealth over $1 billion would raise about $2.5 billion annually. Instead of getting $111 billion, Jeff Bezos will get $110 billion. Howard Schultz, Starbucks union worker, would see a decrease of $3.7 billion to $3.66 billion. The legislature considered a bill to tax oligarchy in our state last year but took no action.
Now is the time to act and show true leadership in rebuilding our commonwealth and common prosperity.