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A rare commencement speaker points to failure

Idaho state government earned notoriety two years ago when it cut its higher education budget by 10 percent. As draconian as that was, however, Idaho’s college and university system has not seen the reductions that Washington’s has. In the Evergreen State, the cuts have been more gradual, but more relentless.

Too many Washingtonians are unaware of the depth of the wounds left by the budget ax. Too bad they weren’t all in attendance at Washington State University’s mid-year commencement ceremony Saturday.

There, onetime WSU student activist and current Regent Bill Marler leveled with graduates about what state government and voters alike have done to the school and its sister institutions. In Marler’s words, they have “more than turned their back on supporting higher education.”

As they have done that, programs have been curtailed, faculty salaries have slipped in comparison with other schools and student tuition has risen to the point that a higher education is, in Marler’s words, for “only the wealthy, only the privileged few.”

“This is not world class, face to face,” Marler said, in mockery of the slogan WSU adopted a few years back.

It sure isn’t. And the reasons for that are as varied as they are inescapable.

Among them is a citizen tax revolt orchestrated by Marler’s fellow, less responsible WSU grad, Tim Eyman. As Eyman’s initiatives have strangled the flow from certain revenue streams, legislators have been forced to compensate by cutting elsewhere in the state budget.

In addition, paralysis caused by legislative chambers evenly or nearly evenly split between political parties has left the Legislature without the ability to move decisively.

Contributing to that stalemate has been a governor more given to getting along than to pointing the way. For all his strengths, Gary Locke has failed to marshal his fellow Washingtonians to join him in the kind of initiatives that former Gov. Dan Evans was known for. And this year, he didn’t even try, proposing a state budget without additional revenue to make up for money lost to Eyman initiatives.

Ultimately, though, it is hard to see how Washington’s higher education classes will approach world class while the state remains crippled by the lack of an income tax. That tax should serve as the strongest leg of the three-legged stool that supports most states, including property and sales taxes.

Marler challenged graduates to work to reverse the state’s abandonment of higher education themselves, telling them, “There is more leadership right here, right now than in Olympia.” Hell, judging from the state’s treatment of higher ed, there might be more leadership in Albion than there is in Olympia.