Michael Neher | My Policies
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My Policies

The Environment

The first generation of environmental policies enacted during the 1960s and 1970s helped America make impressive progress toward abating pollution of the air, water, and land. But today’s environmental problems — often not traceable to clear targets such as a smokestack or a pipe running into a river — require a second generation of policies. 


As a New Democrat believe centralized command-and-control regulations are ill-suited to meet new environmental challenges. 


A second-generation environmental strategy strives for better environmental results by encouraging and rewarding innovation, information, and stewardship. 


Innovation means setting environmental goals and giving key players the leeway to develop alternative means of achieving them. It also means using market-based approaches that give polluters powerful incentives to take positive environmental action. Give companies powerful incentives like tax credits to develop technologies that reduce pollution at lower costs. 


Information means empowering not just bureaucrats, but local communities and citizens with reliable environmental data. Government has a key role in promoting and disseminating “sound science” and improved monitoring on environmental issues. But it has an equally important responsibility to get this information into the hands of communities and citizens, who often are more effective than regulators in influencing environmental improvements. 

Stewardship means encouraging communities to take responsibility for their environmental quality of life and giving them the leeway to devise solutions suitable to their circumstances. Top-down, inflexible regulations often frustrate communities in how they can use federal or state environmental funds, or how they tailor local efforts to meet national standards. 


A new breed of “civic environmentalism” focused on locally designed strategies to achieve high environmental standards should be actively encouraged at every level of government. 


New Democrats believe second-generation policies can break the current deadlock in the national environmental debate. These policies are designed to overcome the false conflict between environmental quality and economic growth. By promoting innovation, information, and stewardship, we can do more for the environment at a lower cost, and with less regulation, litigation, and conflict.

The Role of Government

As a New Democrat I believe that government’s proper role in local life is not to solve problems for Washingtonians, or to leave them to fend for themselves, but to equip them with the tools they need to solve their own problems. 


Government and its programs should never become ends in themselves. Even the most useful programs should be constantly reviewed to ensure that they perform the functions for which they were created, as effectively and efficiently as possible. 


But if traditional liberals sometimes forget the original purpose of government programs, conservatives increasingly deny they can have any purpose at all. Being “against government” is hypocritical unless you are willing to abolish government entirely. 


As a New Democrat I want to reform government programs, not defend or attack them. 


Government’s relationship to the market is to define public goals, and then use market forces to reach them as fairly and efficiently as possible. 


Government should be designed to do no more or less than is necessary to achieve public goals. It should be strategic, not bureaucratic. It should use the minimum regulation and expense to achieve clearly defined outcomes. 


Whenever possible, government should seek to empower citizens directly rather than operating through intermediaries or programs. If designed properly, vouchers and tax credits can replace traditional programs in areas where government does not need to provide services.

Crime and Public Safety

Public safety from violent crime is a fundamental responsibility of government, a critical measurement of our quality of life, and a key to reviving Seattle and King County. 


As a New Democrat I believe in a community-based approach to crime-fighting aimed at making streets, neighborhoods, and public places safe for law abiding citizens, rather than just achieving abstract improvements in crime rates. 


Community policing means deploying police officers whenever possible to assigned “beats” in specific neighborhoods. Officers are responsible for overall levels of public safety and for identifying patterns of disorder that breed high crime rates and encourage abandonment of territory to criminal predators. 


The principle underlying community policing should be expanded to other parts of the criminal justice system — to prosecutors, parole and probation officers, and juvenile justice programs. Like the police, these officers should be given responsibility for particular neighborhoods and should work with the police to improve public safety. 


“Racial profiling” and other random-targeting methods of policing are not only morally wrong, they also represent bad policing. Police should be given the technological tools, and the close links to the communities they patrol, to target actual criminal suspects. Targeting of broad categories of people based on vague notions of “criminal propensity” will alienate precisely those law-abiding citizens of high-crime communities who ought to be the closest allies of community police. 


More generally, cities should adopt a strategy of “reclaiming public spaces” such as parks, transportation facilities, sports and recreation centers, and downtown retail and commercial areas. These spaces are central to civic life. 


Another community-based crime-fighting strategy is to closely supervise ex-convicts after they have been released from confinement. We should address legitimate concerns and “revolving door” sentencing policies not by abolishing parole, but by making sentences longer. Parole gives the justice system a critical opportunity to supervise ex-cons intensively. Also, there is a high correlation between criminals and substance abuse. Ex-cons should be tested frequently for alcohol and drugs. Those who fail should be forced into treatment programs and, if they continue to fail, sent back to prison. This approach, called “coerced abstinence,” is also a useful alternative to incarceration for first-time nonviolent offenders addicted to drugs or alcohol. 

As a New Democrat I believe in the right of law abiding citizens to have firearms and support reasonable gun safety laws that keep deadly weapons out of the hands of people with violent criminal records, and that balance gun ownership rights with responsibilities for their safe use.

Keep Our Fiscal Houses in Order

Over the last couple decades, we have seen economic downturns making difficulties for states. While DC spends, Democratic governors and state legislators have had to make the hard choices needed to balance their state budgets and ensure there is enough money to make key investments in education, health care, and the environment. Going forward, state New Democrats should continue to be vigilant in keeping their budgets in balance by focusing on the following strategies utilized by other states: 


Increasing deposits into “rainy day” funds. Like Tennessee, Virginia, and other states, governors and legislators should increase deposits into the state’s rainy-day emergency revenue fund in times of extraordinary revenue growth. Under the law in Virginia, when increases in revenues for a given year are 50 percent higher than the average increase experienced over the prior six years, the state must increase the amount of money going into the rainy day fund by 50 percent. 


Sunsetting boards and commissions. Support legislation that requires sunset dates in legislation establishing new boards and commissions. 


Committing to results-based budgeting. Facing a $2 billion budget shortfall in 2002, the state of Washington turned the shortfall into an opportunity to reform the budget process by adopting a method of first determining what results residents wanted from government. State agencies were required to rate their 1,400 activities as either high, medium, or low priority. Agencies were required to list at least one-third of their individual budgets as low priority. Once the budget team had that list of top priorities, it was then much easier to pick through the state’s inventory of programs, and allocate money to the programs most likely to achieve those priorities. Starting with a list of priorities, Gov. Gary Locke encouraged the budget team to look beyond agencies and current practices to view government as one enterprise able to innovate for results. Each priority had an inter-agency “results team” analyze options for achieving the intended result and identify the five or six most effective expenditures. In cases where these options seemed inadequate, they were encouraged to propose new options. For example, the team handling K-12 education proposed moving to a “pay-for-performance” compensation system for teachers, instead of the traditional fixed pay scale. That team also proposed moving away from across-the-board education funding and toward more targeted funding for the schools and students with the greatest needs. Such creative reforms helped the state submit a budget to the legislature that cut spending by a brutal $2.4 billion — nearly 10 percent of the projected cost of continuing all state services at existing levels — without imposing ineffectual sweeping cuts. 


Focusing first on cutting the size of government. Throughout the country, Democratic governors and legislators have tackled budget problems over last two decades left by their predecessors by cutting government administration. Both New Mexico and Michigan seen dramatic reductions in the size of government and were able to close their deficits without raising taxes. 


Cutting state government energy costs. Arizona has provided an excellent model for systematically cutting energy costs incurred by state governments. Arizona’s plan was the centerpiece of legislation enacted in April 2003 to reduce energy use by the state’s Administration and Transportation Departments and by its universities and community colleges. The goal was to achieve a 15 percent reduction (below 2001-2002 levels) within a decade. The energy initiative is also connected with the state’s Efficiency Review program for improving state government performance. It is expected to save the taxpayers $90 million in energy bills.

Making Work Pay

In 1996, President Clinton signed legislation “ending welfare as we know it.” The new law placed a work requirement on previously unconditional public assistance and gave states flexible funds to help welfare recipients prepare for, obtain, and keep private-sector jobs. 


More fundamentally, welfare reform created a new social contract between the country and welfare recipients: If you work, we will make sure work pays enough to raise your family. Thus, making welfare reform work, both practically and morally, means “making work pay.” 


Making work pay has long been a major priority for New Democrats. The expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit — a refundable credit providing income support for the working poor — was a central feature of President Clinton’s first budget, and an essential prerequisite to work-based welfare reform. 


But making work pay requires more than basic income support: Working-poor families need health insurance, childcare, transportation assistance, and decent, affordable housing. The 1996 welfare reform law ensured that people making the transition from welfare to work would remain eligible for Medicaid and food stamps. More recently, the president and Congress have given states new funds to expand child health insurance coverage to working-poor families not eligible for income support. 


Through a combination of unused welfare block grant funds and other sources of federal assistance, Washington State should make a commitment to “make work pay,” not just for former welfare recipients, but for the working poor generally. 

Strategies should include: 

  • state-level earned income tax credits;
  • childcare to ensure parents are able to go to work;
  • health insurance for working-poor families;
  • transportation assistance, including help in making a down payment on a car to commute to work, and help in securing auto insurance;
  • help in securing private rental housing near work, and wherever possible, becoming homeowners;
  • assistance in starting a small business;
  • incentives to open checking and savings accounts, and to obtain wealth-building assets; and
  • intensive job-readiness, placement, support, and training services.


The object should be to help every working-poor family, not just those leaving welfare, get onto the ladder of upward mobility and into the economic mainstream.

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