The Working Families Tax Credit is an investment in Washington’s recovery

Published, Washington State Wire, April 5, 2021 (With Aaron Katz)

We all know the massive toll that COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout have taken on us all. But at long last, we are starting to see hopeful signs of better days ahead – increased vaccinations, restrictions lifted, and plans for kids to return to school. So now – right now – is when Washington state needs to invest in proven strategies that will ensure our state’s long-term health and economic recovery.

House Bill 1297, which funds an updated Working Families Tax Credit, is just that kind of proven strategy. It puts direct, flexible cash into the hands of those who need it most. In our respective fields of economics and public health, we know that this kind of direct cash is a powerful tool for getting our economy on track and improving the collective health and well-being of people in our state.

Modeled after the highly successful federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), this policy would provide working families with an annual base credit of $500 to $950, depending on family size, with the credit phasing down as incomes rise. Because nearly a half-million Washington state families would qualify for the credit, it would reach one in four kids. This type of direct, flexible cash can be the lifeline that helps someone start a microbusiness, or allows them to pay for needed medical care or unexpected car repairs. Continue reading

It’s time for Olympia to impose new taxes on the rich

Published October 26, 2020 in Puget Sound Business Journal

The coronavirus is not just a health disaster, but an economic one as well.  There are, of course, the steep declines in income and consumption we are experiencing. But in addition, the economic tumble has translated into reduced state revenue and a gaping budget deficit.

Washington State’s budget problem is of course not unique.  All other states across the nation are equally challenged, and most are responding by cutting spending and shutting down programs.  Yet the case for finding new revenue sources instead has never been stronger. Especially here in Washington.

According to the most recent state forecast, Washington State’s current biennial budget is $2.4 billion below pre-Covid19 projections, an amount equaling about 5 percent of general state revenue. Meeting this shortfall with cuts only would be devastating.  

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Washington state leaders must tax the way to a just society

With Cynthia Stewart, Published in Tacoma’s The News Tribune December 7, 2019

Few topics are less understood or more quickly put the public to sleep than tax policy. Yet especially in our state, it’s essential knowledge.

And not just because public oversight of government depends on it. If you care about redressing our nation’s racially biased past, it is necessary to recognize how tax policy furthers our regrettable history of disparate treatment for different races.

The inequalities in our state’s tax code are well known, and have gained us the ignoble designation of “the most unfair state and local tax system in the country.”

This medal of dishonor from the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy is based on ITEP’s assessment of how fairly the tax burden is spread among residents in the 50 states. Washington ranks dead last.

The problem is that our state and local governments rely heavily on sales and excise taxes, which fall disproportionately on the poor. Meanwhile, Washington lacks the income or wealth taxes to rebalance the burden towards those with the means to carry it. Continue reading

Washington should invest in Child Savings Accounts to help bridge income gaps

Published March 5, 2019 in the Seattle Times

“The Fleecing of the Millennials.” This is the provocative headline of a recent opinion piece by a New York Times columnist. David Leonhardt convincingly makes the case that the income gap between younger and older generations has been widening.

There’s nothing alarming about an older generation having more income and wealth than a younger one, of course. But Leonhardt investigates trends in this gap over time. He found that, on average, today’s young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 earn the same now as they did nearly half a century ago. Meanwhile over this same time period, the income of those between 55 and 64 grew by a quarter; and it grew by 75 percent among the retired population.

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Ballot drop boxes: Will convenience get you to vote?

Published in the Seattle Times, July 18, 2017

Last year, King County sought to improve turnout by increasing the number of its drop boxes from 10 to 43. In the words of King County’s Director of Elections Julie Wise, the purpose was to “make it as easy as possible to exercise the right to vote.”

Interest in the use of drop boxes as alternatives to the U.S. Postal Service peaked last month when Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill requiring counties to install 250 to 275 additional boxes throughout the state.

 Drop boxes are preferred by some voters, and this new law will make them more popular still. In King County, one-fourth of all voters used a drop box before last summer’s expansion; after it, more than half did. Under our state’s new law, King County will now double the number of drop- Continue reading

When it comes to unfair tax systems, Washington is No. 1

Published in Tacoma’s News Tribune February 1, 2015

tax burdenThe start of the 2015 legislative session has brought stiff competition for the most suitable image of Washington’s tax code. Reuven Carlyle, chairman of the House Finance Committee, called it a Ford Pinto, the automotive jewel once named by Forbes as “The Worst Car of All Time.”

A bit more kindly, Gov. Jay Inslee evoked earlier transportation history, finding the moniker jalopy more fitting to the tax system’s barely functioning condition.

Sticking with the transportation theme, my vote is with the sedan chair, that 17th-centuryWashingtonAll European conveyance in which the rich and royal rode, carted around by bearers.

There is much to dislike about taxes, of course, but those we pay in Washington are especially onerous. Start with the hundreds of tax breaks, each one no doubt enacted some point in the past to encourage a worthwhile pursuit. Or not. Continue reading

More options are needed to bridge the state’s budget gap

Published in The News Tribune, June 5, 2013

Gridlock; a ticking clock; a glacier.

Pick your favorite metaphor to describe the ongoing, seemingly never-ending “negotiations” occurring in Olympia over the state’s budget. So boring, uneventful, and secretive are these purported discussions that even political scribes are finding little of interest to report on.

The Legislature’s 30-day special session, the sole purpose of which is to approve a budget, is now set to expire in less than a week. Continue reading

Efforts boost college success for low-income and minority students

Published in The News Tribune, May 22, 2013.

Critics of the United States like to single out our large disparities in life outcomes as evidence of our country’s moral failures. As disturbing as differences in income and wealth are, we Americans remain wedded to our foundational story: With hard work and a large dose of determination, even the poorest among us can climb the social ladder.

We probably each can recite such a Horatio Alger story. I see them each year in my classroom, where sit immigrants who have fled poverty and conflict, having exchanged it for the security and success our country offers them. Continue reading

Praising math successes part of fostering big change

Published in The News Tribune, April 24, 2013.

There’s an increasing drumbeat around making sure all high school students graduate with solid math skills.

You could hear it in News Tribune articles this month. One (“Math problems are a problem for job-seekers, employers say,”, 4-4) described how some local employers require their employees to have a basic grasp of math, but were finding that most high school graduates did not.

In another we learned that 16,000 of the state’s high school seniors have yet to pass the state math test, and thus may not graduate (“Thousands might not graduate because of WA math test,” 4-15).

It so happens that between the publication of these two articles, I found myself in Yakima attending the Washington State Math Council’s annual State Mathematics Contests. Continue reading

Higher education exploits its athletes

Published in The News Tribune, April 10, 2013.

When employers gain the lion’s share of the value created in the workplace, we commonly call this economic exploitation. Slavery is the extreme example, but exploitation can occur when workers gain something more than zero percent of what is produced.

A nation’s “wage share” provides a rough approximation of how the value of what a country produces is split between workers and employers. In the United States, the wage share is about 58 percent.

Bear with me a minute, because I’m now going to relate this to March Madness. Continue reading

State’s future tuition program caught in conundrum

Published in The News Tribune, February 13, 2013

Only make promises you can keep.

That’s good, solid advice.  In light of what we now know about Washington’s embattled Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program, we might modify that to something along the lines of “Only make promises you won’t regret keeping.”

The good thing about GET is that it reduces the financial uncertainty associated with college by allowing anyone to pay for tuition at a set price today, and receive the value of tuition — whatever that might be — tomorrow.  In this way GET has helped many Washingtonians plan for the expense of college. Continue reading

Misguided drug policies can create tragic, unintended consequences

Published in The News Tribune, November 8, 2012

As part of an introductory course in economics, I used to teach my students about the unintended consequences that usually accompany well-intentioned attempts to make particular transactions illegal.  I would draw on current drug policy to link theory with reality.

One thing that I learned from these conversations was that many students felt that discussing the pros and cons of drug legalization was immoral.  This sort of belief is one of the challenges we’ve faced in confronting failures in our drug policies.

Tuesday’s passage of initiatives in Washington (I-502) and Colorado to legalize recreational marijuana usage offer promising signs that change is now in the air.  Continue reading

Op-ed: Approve Initiative 1240 to allow public charter schools

Published in The Seattle Times, October 22, 2012

Three previous swings at establishing public charter schools in Washington came up empty, so why are proponents for them still at bat?

Passion for charter schools is part of the reason Initiative 1240 is on the Nov. 6 ballot. Another reason is that hope springs eternal — a changing political environment opens up new possibilities and with it, perhaps, a different outcome. Finally, a new campaign for charters might succeed in dispelling common arguments against them that could change the debate.

One common argument is that there’s no evidence the average public charter school outperforms traditional public schools. While true, this fact shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that charters aren’t good for Washington’s children. Continue reading

We must give our trust to educators, but we must verify the results

Published in The News Tribune, October 11, 2012

What President Ronald Reagan liked to say about our relations with the Soviet Union, “Trust, but verify” is also true of education.  This is why I think the charter school initiative, I-1240, is a good idea:  it strengthens our trust in schools and it provides new ways to verify that this trust is deserved.

Comparing international relations and negotiations over nuclear disarmament treaties with education and charters schools deserves explanation.  To do that let’s turn back the clock.  Continue reading

To be better informed, state voters could use a little nudge

Published in The News Tribune, August 15, 2012

A concept referred to as “nudge” has been getting some attention lately.  This is because the two professors who coined the term wrote a book (unsurprisingly called Nudge) that explains it to a general audience.

The basic claim in Nudge is that in a wide range of situations governments should “nudge” people into making better choices.  Turning to the recent election results, I’d argue that Washington State residents would benefit from a little nudging so that we cast more informed votes. Continue reading

Veterans need strong connection to civilians to help transition

Published in The News Tribune, January 18, 2012

As readers of this newspaper likely know, last year JBLM suffered a record number of suicides (TNT 12-30).  Tragically, this increase reflects a nationwide trend; suicide rates in the Army have doubled over the last 10 years.  Clearly all is not well with our armed forces.  Divorce rates are climbing.  And the unemployment rate among younger veterans now stands at 30 percent — twice the rate found among younger non-veterans.

In this column I’d like to draw attention to a slow shift occurring in civilian-military relations that contributes to the growing challenges faced by soldiers re-entering civilian life. Continue reading

Lawmakers need to focus on structural problems with budget

Published in The News Tribune, January 5, 2012

As our legislators return to Olympia, they must feel like the Bill Murray character in the movie Groundhog Day.  Each year they show up at Olympia and find that — once again — revenue falls far short of expenditures.  Let’s hope this year they find a way to awaken from this bad dream.

To start, legislators should begin distinguishing short- from long-term budget problems.  Short-term cyclical problems are caused by a weak economy.  Continue reading

Gas tax would aid economy, fund state programs

Published in The News Tribune, October 9, 2011

After what now seems like a thankfully long respite – four months was it? – state budget cuts are once again on the table.  And it’s the same old story.

The state’s chief economist Arun Raha once again erred on the side of optimism.  In truth, it’s more accurate to say that he was not pessimistic enough – no one dares be optimistic these days.  At any rate, the state budget is once again short — this time it is predicted to have $1.4 billion fewer revenues than when Raha last peered into his crystal ball. So back to the drawing board.  Back to negotiating more budget cuts. Continue reading

Strike has been resolved, but many problems remain

Published in The News Tribune, September 25, 2011

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll probably recall the cult film The Endless Summer.   We seemed to be living through our own version of that movie the last few weeks.  Summer ends when kids are back in school, and like the perfect wave in that movie, our waiting never seems to end.

It’s hard to think of a better example than a teacher’s strike of an event where everyone loses.  The only way the public can “win” is if the strike provides some lessons about the shortcomings of our school system.  I can think of three. Continue reading

Task for new UW President: Make college affordable

Published in The News Tribune, July 8, 2011

The University of Washington has made an interesting choice for its new President.  Michael Young, who this week took over UW’s realm, does not seem to fit the liberal reputation of this institution.  But let’s hope he proves successful in addressing the conservative features of the University.  Such conservatism marks most of the nation’s public colleges and universities, and poses one of higher education’s largest challenges.

Some background is needed to understand this.  Let’s take what is fast becoming one of the most challenging issues in higher education:  providing an affordable education for the state’s students. Continue reading

Unions not to blame for problems with pension mess

Published in The News Tribune, April 15, 2011

Paying public employee pensions is costly, and will become more so. So we
better learn the right lesson.

In this state, two public pension programs are running out of money.  Unless
it changes current contracts, the state will have to significantly dip into
the general fund to meet its obligations.

The recent House budget addresses this problem by reducing future payouts to
retired workers. Yet even if approved, the changes still leave the two
programs billions of dollars short over the coming years. Continue reading

State revenue picture is better than you might think

Published in The News Tribune December 2, 2010

Despite front page doom and gloom on the state budget front, my column last week argued that things aren’t quite so bad.  Sure in the weeks ahead, we’ll suffer more budget cuts as the projected revenue for the rest of the fiscal year is once again falling short of what was previously forecast. .

But looking ahead, the Office of Financial Management (OFM) is forecasting record revenue for the next biennium – a full 16 percent above revenue expected this biennium.   By comparison with these last two years, the next biennium sounds like a piece of cake.  Perhaps with the exception of Tacoma’s City Manager, who among us wouldn’t  leap for joy if told that our income was going up 16 percent? Continue reading

I-1098 neither targets nor discourages innovation

Published in The News Tribune October 27, 2010

It’s the Innovation Era!  Creativity and ideas are what drive economic growth these days, not strong backs and the luck of geography.

So we should be especially interested in knowing what promotes “innovation” — and conversely what inhibits it.  If you listen to many opponents of the state’s income tax initiative (I-1098), an income tax on the wealthiest Washingtonians will do the latter.   

 “I-1098 would significantly harm the state’s ability to attract new businesses” is a common complaint.  Another critic writes that I-1098 harms firms “at the heart of the ‘innovation economy’”.

There may be good reasons for opposing I-1098, but that it will stifle innovation is not one of them. Continue reading

New education standards key to improving schools

Published in The News Tribune August 27, 2010

As a new school year rolls around, there is reason to be optimistic that our educational system might finally be headed in the right direction.

Let’s start first with the bad news, best summarized by a couple of statistics.  According to the federal government, among Washington’s 8th grade low income black students, only 8 percent have achieved 8th grade math proficiency.  Among the state’s nonpoor white students, about half meet this standard.

These statistics point to the two persistent problems facing both Washington and the nation:  the low overall quality of education received by students, and the “achievement gap” – differences in the quality received based on socioeconomic class. Continue reading