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Religious leaders challenge legislature to set ‘moral’ budget with tax equity

Aware that human services are in peril during the state budget crunch, speakers at the Eastern Washington Legislative Conference in February emphasized repeatedly that the state budget needs to be “a moral budget,” and that people need to pay more in taxes to help make that possible.

 “Who would Jesus bail out?” asked Alice Woldt, transitional director of the Washington Association of Churches (WAC), to start people thinking about the economic stimulus and people who need to be included in the state budget.

She called for the faith community to advocate that the state budget be a “moral document” that sets values and priorities related to human life.

Donna Christensen
Donna Christensen from WA Catholic Conference

Recently 18 church leaders expressed dismay to Governor Christine Gregoire that the proposed budget again pushes aside the needs of the poor. Speakers presented overviews of bills before the Washington State Legislature in Olympia that address the WAC’s and ecumenical partner’s 2009 priorities of “hunger, housing, health care and heart.”

“We need to let our legislators know what is on our hearts, our concern about cuts to vital human services.  We can’t cut our way out of the deficit.  We also need to restructure our tax system so it is more equitable, rather than depending so heavily on sales taxes which decline in a recession.
“We may need to put new taxes on the ballot to avoid deep cuts in education, survival services and health care,” Alice said.

She suggests cutting some tax exemptions and subsidies for private industry, which have strong “cheerleaders.”

“Human services traditionally are targets for the big cuts,” she said, “and they face 30 percent cuts this session, in contrast to just 4 percent cuts in economic development and public safety.
“We need our voices heard,” she said.

The WAC, in addition to the conference, provides tools for people to engage in advocacy through its online Faith Advocacy Network at www.thewac.org, which keeps people current on the status and content of bills pertaining to the priorities. 

The ecumenical agency urges people to call the legislative hotline at 800-672-6000, to write letters and to go to Olympia or gather in their local churches for Faith Advocacy Day on Tuesday, March 17.  Those who meet in churches can discuss issues and contact their legislators by phone.

The Very Rev. Bill Ellis of the Cathedral of St. John offered a prayer that people remember that God’s will in the Inland Northwest, the state, the nation and the world is for peace through justice, not dominance or violence.

He challenged participants to know God’s love for them, to live in that love and to let the people in power in Olympia and Washington, D.C., know “we, the people, are attentive.”
Eastern Washington liaison for the Washington Association of Churches (WAC) Malcolm Haworth suggested that the theme, “Sustainable Community,” gave an opportunity to explore how the economy, environment and equity can create sustainable life.

Pointing to the value of people who are vulnerable, Bishop William Skylstad of the Catholic Diocese of Spokane mentioned a scene in the film, “Schindler’s List,” when Oscar Schindler wonders how many Jewish people he might have saved if he had sold his gold Nazi lapel pin.
“He connects a piece of gold with salvation of people,” the bishop said.  “The Scriptures have many stories of people who make such connections and understand that part of our role is to help people.”

 Bishop Skylstad said the theme “calls us to run a reality check on ourselves as individuals and communities of faith, looking at our hearts, our relationships and our physical environments.
“Ecology,” he pointed out, “is about the totality of relationships between organisms and their environment.

“What is our relationship to God, our Creator, and what does that relationship mean we need to address?” he asked, pointing out that God created people with physical and spiritual hearts.
“Without spiritual hearts we lose footing, orientation, humility, recognition of sinfulness, reliance on God, connection to community and a sense of stewardship connecting life.”

Bishop Skylstad said that the spiritual heart is about love, peace, gratitude and joy to help people connect the ecology and economy behind climate change.  He reminded of the second commandment’s call to love neighbors and Jesus calling people to care for the hungry, naked, sick, imprisoned and “the least.”  Scriptures warn about oppressing the weak and abusing the needy.

Solidarity with and responsibility for people, he said, “affect the quality of our existence. Multi-million dollar corporate salaries represent a disconnection with brothers and sisters.
“Selfish use of the world’s resources causes grievances, conflicts, violence, war and terrorism,” he said.  “Ecology of the earth is about stewardship of the land, water, energy and climate.”
He concluded that the future demands a conversion of the heart so people pollute less and clean up what is polluted, so people envision an alternative future and persist for the long haul.

Donna Christensen, an advocate with the Washington State Catholic Conference (WSCC) for 10 years, said the process of making laws and setting the budget is complicated.  In her 26 years in Olympia, she said challenges have not changed:  There are budget crises over and over, because the state budget receives for 50 percent of its income from sales and use taxes, 18 percent from business and operations taxes, 12 percent from property taxes and 7 percent from real estate taxes.

“There is need for tax equity,” she said, reinforcing Alice’s call.

“We need to pay attention,” she said, challenging cuts to General Assistance to the Unemployable (GAU), Volunteer Chore and health care.

GAU assistance at $339 a month—set in 1982—for disabled people covers 90 days before they are eligible for unemployment.  It may be completely cut.

Volunteer Chore Services, created when state funded Chore Services were cut in a previous budget crisis, operates with volunteers helping people so they can stay in their homes, saving the state money.  State funding is at risk.

Funding for the Basic Health Plan has fluctuated from increasing eligibility to 300 percent of the poverty level and to cover all children by 2010, to a 42-percent cut that would eliminate health care for 130,000 people.

Diane urges people to call the legislative hotline, join advocacy networks, write personal letters and envision a community with all people taken care of and no one lives in isolation.
“People will be hurt if we do not prioritize those most in need,” Diane challenged.

Kim Shipley of the WSCC called for preventing cuts to the Housing Trust Fund, which has provided 32,000 low-income and farm worker housing units since 1988.  He also urged support of energy efficiency for buildings to reduce greenhouse gasses.

Sister JoAnn Showalter, Eastern Washington representative of Earth Ministry in Seattle, and Kitty Klitzke of Futurewise in Spokane addressed environmental issues.

Sacred documents of most major faiths call for caring for creation, living simply so that others can simply live, she said, suggesting that people use nonpolluting cleaners instead of chlorine or ammonia, which were developed as weapons of mass destruction in World War I.

She said that “in the past, millions of people, usually poor people, have been forced to move because of environmental degradation during the Dust Bowl, Love Canal and defertilization in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.”

Kitty presented priorities of the Environmental Priorities Coalition, a partnership of 24 organizations in Washington that works together on four priorities each year. 

The 2009 priorities, presented in depth at www.environmentalpriorities.org, are: 

• Cap and Invest (HB 1810/SB 5735) to set limits on global warming pollution;
• Efficiency First (HB 1747/SB 5854) to promote energy efficient homes, businesses and public institutions;
• Transit-Oriented Communities (HB 1490/SB 5687) to establish affordable walkable communities around transit, and
• Invest in Clean Water (HB 1614/SB 5518) to protect clean water as vital resource to Washington’s communities.

Each proposal stimulates a green economy, saving money, providing jobs and protecting resources, Kitty said.

For information, contact the WAC at 206-625-9790, the WSCC at 206-301-0556 or info@environmentalriorities.org.

Copyright © March 2009 - The Fig Tree