As the legislators in both Washington and Oregon are beginning their sessions this week, our leaders are being faced with some difficult choices to make.  Because of the recession’s effects on the economy, we have fewer dollars to spend on the services that we require or are used to receiving from government.  At the same time, we are beginning to see the value in paying a little extra to get the services we need in day-to-day life.  Whether it is health care or libraries or transportation, it is apparent that if we all put in a little bit of the cost, then we will receive value for our money.

None of us like to pay taxes.  For nearly two decades now, the mantra of the “conservative” parties in America has been that taxes are bad and that taxes should be lower.  That it true to a point.  However, we do not want to go overboard.  State government is in a position to assist us in getting things done cheaper than if we all paid for the same services individually.

One example is health care.  None of us are thrilled about the cost of health care.  But we all need to pay for it.  We purchase insurance policies to help smooth out the costs, but for some people who are not members of traditional groups, this is difficult to come by at a reasonable cost.  this is what makes a government health plan so attractive.  Sure, it would cost us more in taxes.  However, the increase in our taxes would be less than what we are payig for our individual policies.  The moral of this story is that we need to be looking at our total costs, not merely how much of it is being passed through the government.

I use this analogy because something similar is happening with Washington State Ferries.  This transportation provider serves commuters in the Puget Sound area, facilitates commerce throughout the region, and serves as a network of bridges through one of the most populated areas of Cascadia.  Certainly it is not used by everyone on a frequent basis, but it is necessary for many.

Like other agencies, the ferry system is being asked to show where cuts can be made to balance the budget in these difficult economic times.  They have come up with two possible plans.  One, known as Plan A, addresses the fact that to remain viable, the ferry system needs to replace old boats on a periodic basis and maintain current schedules.  In fact, due to the tremendous growth that is still happening in the Puget Sound area, there is a growing need for commuter, commercial, and personal transportation in the areas served by WSF.  The other plan, known as Plan B, offers only limited replacement of aging ships, increasing maintenance costs, and actually cutting service.  This would, however, balance the budget without increasing fees or taxes.

Our leaders are now beginning to quiz the users of this service on what they would like to see.  The answers from the first of these public meetings held by WSF is described in this Kitsap Sun article.  When the users on one of these ferry routes were brought together, they did have some ideas for reducing costs.  However, they also noted that due to increased growth and increased usage of public transportation, keeping the current service level was an absolute minimum, and in fact, additional service would be required in the not-too-distant future.  The reason?  It is ultimately less expensive for us to support our public services than it is for each of us to try to pay for it ourselves.

The article starts out by asking “Why would the ferry system want to take a boat from a route that’s already packed and is expecting rapid growth?”  Well, the immediate answer is that according to the Plan B long range plan proposed be WSDOT, they will have to do that to reduce costs below expected current revenue.  The question I have to ask is why we would consider cutting a necessary service that saves us money in the long run in the name of not raising taxes.  The question we really need to be asking is what will benefit the taxpayers the most over the long run.  Abandoning necessary public services is not one of them.

Saving money is a good goal.  Providing a level of public services that serve us well is a good goal.  Cutting necessary services so we can save a few dollars in taxes is foolish.  A small investment now will save us a lot more in the end.  Encourage you legislators to be thrifty, but do not allow them to cut services so much as to strangle the economy.