January 2015 Bar Bulletin
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From the Desk of the Presiding Judge

Budget Crunch Won't Get Better Soon

By Judge Susan Craighead


Presiding judges spend a lot of time ruminating over problems that might occur, because an important part of our jobs is to protect our courts. I know a whole lot more about bomb threat evacuation plans now than I did before I took this job, let me tell you. The fiscal bomb threat on the horizon is the 2017–18 biennial budget.

As I told you last month, if we are to take the same 3.25-percent cut then as we took this budget cycle, we will lose something on the order of 20–25 filled positions. That would be a body blow to our Court. These cuts are not the result of a county government that does not care about its courts. On the contrary, both Executive Dow Constantine and the County Council have been extremely supportive of the Superior Court. But all the goodwill in the world cannot surmount the structural deficit with which we are saddled.

The fundamental problem is Washington's antiquated and arcane tax structure. The Legislature needs to make some changes to the tax structure to enable county governments to perform their essential functions - among them the justice system. The courts account for 11 percent of the King County general fund budget; justice and safety add up to 74 percent of the general fund. Further cuts to the courts are inevitable if we do not deal with this problem.

No, this is not a plea for an income tax. We know how Washington voters feel about that. Rather, we in the legal community need to support rethinking how counties can tax themselves so that we in King County, at least, can continue to serve our citizens in the courts. The next few paragraphs contain some numbers. Please bear with me - it is worth understanding this.

Washington's tax structure dates from the 1930s (property tax, sales tax, excise taxes), but we live in a 21st Century economy with growing inequality between the very wealthiest and everyone else. Consumption-based taxes generate less than they otherwise would because wealthy individuals spend proportionately less on taxed consumption.

Sales tax revenue is volatile and is now a declining percentage of personal income due to changing spending patterns. In 1991, King County residents paid $3.92 in property and sales tax per $1,000 of personal income; in 2012 they paid $3.09 per $1,000.

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