OLYMPIA, Wash. - People here in the Evergreen State, Irish for the day, celebrated Saint Patrick's Day Mar. 17 in front of the Capitol Building chanting, "Protect our future, end tax giveaways!" They waved signs like "Tax the Rich," "Close the Loopholes" and one that proclaimed "10 percent Irish; 30 percent Welsh; 100 percent union."
They cheered as Robby Stern, president of the Puget Sound Alliance for Retired Americans, blasted banks and corporations for creating the economic crisis and then forcing the people to clean up their mess with savage cuts in vital programs like health, education and environmental protection.
"The American dream is under attack," Stern thundered. "Are we going to tolerate this?"
"No," the crowd roared.
"Are we going to fight back?"
It was one of a steady stream of protests in Olympia. Stern urged the crowd to return to Olympia April 5-8 for a week of protests on the theme, "We are one. Put people first."
Rev. Angela Ying, pastor of Bethany United Church of Christ near Seattle, co-chaired the rally and called for a moment of silence for victims of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan. She told the hushed crowd she has relatives in Tokyo and Fukushima she has contacted but does not know if they were evacuated following the nuclear power plant meltdown.
"We have young people, old people, children, the labor movement, people of faith, doctors, caregivers, members of the legislature," Rev. Ying said in an interview. "We are all standing in solidarity with the people of Japan and also to make our own country better."
MoveOn; the retirees' alliance; Fuse, a statewide progressive grassroots organization; locals of the American Federation of Teachers, Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees; the Washington Community Action Network and many others joined the rally. MoveOn brought a packed bus down from the North Olympic Peninsula.
The legislature is grappling with budget deficits estimated at $5.1 billion, yet ballot initiatives pushed through by Republican extremists last November block every measure to increase revenues. It has forced draconian cuts in vital human needs programs to balance the budget.
Democratic legislators have introduced bills to end tax loopholes on out-of-state banks and another that terminates an exemption on the profits of pharmaceutical companies to save the state's Basic Health Program. The coalition is urging the Democratic-majority legislature to put it on the ballot as a referendum if they can't muster the two-thirds majority to pass it.
Rep. Bob Hasegawa, a Teamster union member representing Seattle, was one of more than a dozen state legislators who came out of the Capitol to greet the crowd. He is the author of a bill to create a state bank in Washington modeled on the State Bank of North Dakota.
"My bill has been listed as 'Necessary to Implement the Budget,'" Hasegawa said in an interview. "That means it is not subject to the normal cut off date. It's still alive and I'm working to build support for it." The retirees' alliance, the AFL-CIO and SEIU are already strong endorsers of Hasegawa's bill.
He assailed those who issued "bogus" attacks on the measure by calling it "socialist" and "unconstitutional." He said, "It's probably more important to have a state bank here in Washington than in North Dakota. Small businesses here can't get access to credit to expand their businesses and create jobs. Our community banks across the state are in trouble. A state bank could help these community banks. It would help us weather the economic crisis."
Stern read to the crowd an open letter to the governor and leaders of the legislature. "We, the people, have sacrificed enough," the letter reads. "The wealthiest in our state have not shared in this sacrifice. Millions in tax-breaks for out-of-state banks continue unabated... The state currently has 567 tax breaks on the books that cost taxpayers billions of dollars every year. Instead of cutting vital services, the legislature should be cutting billions in wasteful corporate tax breaks."
A delegation went into the Capitol to deliver the letter to the Governor and legislative leaders.
The protesters marched into the Capitol rotunda. Lynne Dodson, secretary-treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, reported back on their meeting with the chiefs of staff of the governor and legislature. "They noted that we are not Wisconsin," she said. "But that is setting the bar way too low. The Washington Labor Council is 400,000 workers. We are the people of Washington State and we are demanding that our governor and legislature step up and provide leadership right now! We have given enough. It is time for the corporations and the wealthy to pay their fair share." The crowd cheered.
Image: Tim Wheeler/PW