Time to Occupy the Capitol

November 23, 2011

Chris Mobley reports on Occupy activists' plans to challenge more budget cuts.

OCCUPY ACTIVISTS in Washington state are gearing up for the next stage in our struggle: Occupy the Capitol to oppose another round of budget cuts.

Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire has called for a special session of the state legislature to cut an additional $2 billion out of the state budget. At a recent press conference, Gregoire even admitted, "We have shredded our social safety net."

This move comes on top of $10 billion in state budget cuts over the last three years, which have resulted in furloughs and layoffs for state employees, a 47 percent increase in tuition at public universities, the gutting of social and health services, and many other attacks on the basic quality of life for the 99 percent of Washington.

What effect will this round of cuts have? Here is what has been proposed:

Some 13,000 legal immigrants would be cut from the state's food assistance program--their only source of food aid because they are ineligible for federal food assistance.

About 35,000 people would be kicked off the Basic Health Plan, ending a program that subsidizes health care for poor.

Occupy activists rally in downtown Seattle
Occupy activists rally in downtown Seattle (Erin Kohlenberg)

Another 21,000 people enrolled in the state's Disability Lifeline and ADATSA (Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Treatment Support Act) programs would have their medical services cut off.

Two wards at Western State Hospital would be closed. These currently serve 52 patients with conditions such as traumatic brain injury or dementia.

Foster care, juvenile rehabilitation and substance abuse treatment programs would be slashed by $118 million.

A levy equalization program that helps school districts with a poor property tax base will lose half its funding, for a total of $150 million. This will dramatically increase class sizes in affected districts and could shorten the school year.

The budget for state colleges and universities will lose another $225 million.

Funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs will drop by $240,000.

The nuclear waste site cleanup program at Hanford--the most contaminated nuclear site in the nation--will lose $581,000.

The Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, the agency responsible for issuing budget forecasts, will be cut by $94,000. The agency warned Gregoire that a "10 percent cut will eliminate our agency, because we will not have the rudimentary necessities to fulfill our core mission."

ON NOVEMBER 21, in response to mounting pressure from social services providers, unions and the threat of a Madison-style occupation of the state Capitol, Gregoire proposed an emergency revenue measure--something she hasn't done before during three-year-long budget crisis. Her proposal would raise $550 million by increasing the state's regressive sales tax by half a cent. This would require voter approval in a special spring 2012 election.

The $550 million this measure would rise is not only a drop in the bucket relative to the $10 billion in cuts to the state budget, but it further adds to the tax burden on those who would be most affected by the cuts--Washington's poor and working class.

Because the state has no income tax system, Washington relies on regressive sales and property taxes to meet its budget needs. A study by the Sightline Institute ranks Washington dead last in tax fairness. According to the study, the bottom 20 percent of income earners pay 17.3 percent of their income in taxes of various kinds, whereas the top 1 percent of income earners pay just 2.6 percent in taxes.

The state government does have progressive funding sources at its disposal, but it refuses to use them.

Each year, the state gives away $6.5 billion via tax loopholes, mostly to big business. Washington-based Microsoft received $143 million last year in special tax breaks, and aircraft maker Boeing got $104 million. JPMorgan Chase, which took over Washington Mutual in 2008, continues to receive a $120 million tax break on interest collected on first-time mortgages. There are also loopholes for cosmetic surgery ($6.25 million this year) and private jet enthusiasts ($5 million this year).

Another option for the legislature is to tax the rich. Last year, voters rejected Initiative 1098, which would have imposed a 5 percent income tax rate on individual incomes over $200,000 per year and a 9 percent rate on incomes over $500,000 per year. It would have raised $2 billion annually to fund education and health care.

The legislature could pass such a measure outright with a two-thirds majority, or it could put the proposal on the ballot again with a simple majority vote. As the effects of the budget crisis and the worsening economy hammer away at people, voters may be in a different mood than 2010.

Instead, lawmakers have hid behind Initiative 1053, pushed by right-wing hack Tim Eyman. I-1053, which was passed by voters in 2010, requires the state legislature obtain a two-thirds super-majority to increase taxes. Many prominent legal scholars argue that I-1053 is unconstitutional, but lawmakers have yet to challenge it.

What makes this year's budget battle different is the impact of the Occupy movement. Thousands of people in Washington state have marched, protested, camped and organized. The November 28 demonstration is built around the hope that these thousands will join join public-sector workers, students and the poor in standing up for the 99 perent.

Unions and student groups are renting buses to transport people to the capitol of Olympia on November 28, when the special session begins. Acts of civil disobedience are being planned, and activists from all of the state's Occupy encampments have pledged to take over the Capitol building in protest of the cuts.

If the legislature wants to cut from the 99 percent, there will be no business as usual. It's time to Occupy the Capitol on November 28!

Further Reading

From the archives