Sequestration. It’s either a scary word, an empty threat or an ambiguous course of action resulting from the powers that favor politics over people. Take your pick.
But what does sequestration really mean? And how do the actions – or inactions – of the other Washington impact us here in this one?
Simply put, sequestration is across-the-board budget cuts. At its basic level, sequestration is the option of last resort, something that kicks in when two sides dig in their heels and can’t decide on a course of action. Instead of following a detailed, fully vetted financial plan, sequestration treats every dollar the same and whacks funding for the elderly, the military, education and public safety with equal vigor.
Think of it like performing an appendectomy with a socket wrench. Yes, the job might get done, but the patient would undoubtedly feel a whole lot better if the procedure were done with the precision of a razor-sharp scalpel.
What does sequestration mean for Washington state? Look at Joint Base Lewis-McChord here in our area, Naval Base Kitsap out on the peninsula, Fairchild Air Force Base in Eastern Washington, and even Hanford and the research facilities in the Tri-Cities region. Our state is filled with federal facilities, federal employees and federal dollars. We’ll feel sequestration, make no doubt.
My greater fear, however, is how sequestration at the federal level sets the stage for the budget battle currently being waged here in our state Legislature.
Last year, our budget process was heading straight for the option of last resort – across-the-board cuts – until a bipartisan, fiscally moderate coalition took control of the state Senate and declared tax increases were off the negotiating table. Once that happened, a bipartisan budget was approved, truly vital state services were spared and months of potential special sessions were avoided.
This year, while the bipartisan majority coalition still controls the state Senate, a new paradigm has entered the equation: the state Supreme Court’s ruling against the two-thirds legislative vote for tax increases.
Without this taxpayer protection in place, those in Olympia who believe in more government feel emboldened. There is the temptation to feel vindicated by the court’s will while ignoring the people’s.
Therein lies the rub. Once tax increases are back on the negotiating table, all serious efforts to reform, resize and reduce state government come to a screeching halt. Tax increases become the easy panacea – the path of least pain for the elected officials tasked with making the difficult decisions responsible governing requires.
Lawmakers would be wise and do themselves a great favor by placing the two-thirds taxpayer protection into the state constitution. Remove the temptation of new or increased taxes on struggling families, individuals and employers now, or suffer the wrath of the voters later.
Legislators on both sides of the aisle need to come to the realization that not all government spending is created equally. The dollar spent on education, protecting our most vulnerable and ensuring public safety must have a higher value to society than buying more state land we can’t afford to manage properly or enforcing ultra-strict environmental regulations that go way beyond what even the federal government requires.
Until tax increases are off the table and lawmakers admit to themselves that not every dollar is created equally, the public in this Washington will quickly find themselves staring at a surgeon armed with a socket wrench. And the resulting operation will be more painful, more bloody and more scary than need be.