Editor’s note: Today’s editorials originally appeared in The Columbian. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
The governor has weighed in, as has the state Supreme Court. But as the Legislature considers abolishing the death penalty in Washington, the discussion is bypassing the most important stakeholder — the public.
A referendum on capital punishment should be placed before voters, allowing us to clearly identify the values that best reflect our state.
To some extent, a vote regarding the death penalty would be impotent. Gov. Jay Inslee in 2014 declared a moratorium on executions as long as he is in office, and future governors might echo that stance. No executions have been carried out in Washington since 2010.
In October, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state’s application of capital punishment is unconstitutional because it is “arbitrary” and “racially biased.” Studies have shown that black defendants are more than four times as likely to be sentenced to death as white defendants. The court’s decision left room for the Legislature to reconfigure the death penalty law in order to adhere with the state constitution.
Instead, lawmakers are considering removing the death penalty from the statutes and making life in prison without the possibility of release the strongest punishment the state can mete out. Senate Bill 5339 passed by a 28-19 vote (among Southwest Washington lawmakers, Annette Cleveland voted in favor, Ann Rivers was opposed, and Lynda Wilson was excused). The measure now goes to the House of Representatives.
Representatives should reject the bill and leave the next word on the death penalty to the people of Washington. After all, voters established the current law in 1981, when they approved changes to provisions that had rendered the previous law unconstitutional. Voters should be the ones to decide whether the death penalty must remain on the books. There clearly is a moral justification for eschewing the death penalty. In announcing his moratorium five years ago, Inslee noted that of 32 defendants who had been sentenced to death since 1981, 18 had those sentences converted to life in prison and one had been set free. Nationally, the Death Penalty Information Center reports that 164 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973. The death penalty carries weighty moral and philosophical questions, with the most prominent involving the risk of executing somebody who is innocent. Meanwhile, there also are practical implications. A study from Seattle University found that pursuing the death penalty adds an average of $1 million to the cost of a trial for prosecutors, and the price of the appeals process and eventual execution typically exceeds the cost of housing a prisoner for the remainder of their life. On the other hand, longtime Clark County residents likely remember Westley Allan Dodd and the terror he inflicted on the community. Dodd kidnapped, molested and murdered three young boys in 1989; he was executed in 1993. It is difficult to argue that the public interest would be served by keeping such a monster alive under the care of the state. That debate, however, is something that should be left to the people of Washington. While the governor and the Supreme Court have had an opportunity to weigh in, voters should have a say.
Plea for no tax increases fiscally responsible
As legislators begin hammering out a state operating budget for the 2019-21 biennium, Sen. John Braun is making a plea for no tax increases.
For Braun, R-Centralia, a plea essentially is the extent of his power. He is the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which plays a big role in writing the budget, but with Democrats holding control of both legislative chambers, his influence is limited.
“We’re in great shape,” Braun said of the state’s finances. “We don’t need more taxes.”
Rather than being viewed as a partisan position, Braun’s view should be considered a fiscally responsible one. Thanks to a strong economy, the state government is expected to have a $3 billion surplus at the end of the current four-year budget cycle. On Wednesday, the Office of Financial Management released an updated forecast that predicts an additional $861 million between now and the middle of 2021.
Braun’s assertion is that the state has plenty of revenue for meeting essential needs. Those needs are numerous — beginning with funding for K-12 public schools. In 2017 and 2018, the Legislature reconfigured school funding to meet the mandate of the state Supreme Court’s decision in McCleary v. Washington. Although that increased state funding, it also placed a limit on the amount of money school districts can raise from local levies. After threatened teacher strikes last summer, many districts reached agreements to provide teachers with significant raises. Now, districts are projecting budget shortfalls in coming years.
Democrats are likely to seek a lift of the levy lid in order for districts to raise more money. “Are there deficits?” Braun said in his meeting with the Editorial Board. “Yes, but I think that has more to do with the bargaining situation we went through last summer. ... Certainly the superintendents and school boards have some blame there.”
The levy lid was established in exchange for an increase in state funding. Lifting the lid now, when the agreement has barely taken effect, would poorly serve taxpayers and would open the door for a return to the inequities that led to the McCleary decision in the first place. Nobody is in the mood for McCleary 2.0.
Aside from discussions about school funding, there is likely to be wrangling over proposals for a carbon tax and a capital gains tax, both of which have long been supported by Gov. Jay Inslee. Depending upon the specifics, either tax could be beneficial. If a carbon tax helps reduce emissions throughout the state, it might be worthwhile; and a capital gains tax would tax money that is generated from wealth rather than toil (but there are valid questions about whether it would be constitutional in Washington).
Implementation of either tax, however, should be budget neutral, offset by reductions elsewhere, rather than used as a tool to increase revenue.