Labor to leaders: Close loopholes for 'moral budget'

Staff writerMarch 31, 2011 

The Washington State Labor Council and allies are marching on the state Capitol next week in a wave of rallies that speak to a growing militancy against state budget cuts.

The events are part of labor's demand that state lawmakers close tax exemptions and special rates for industries and businesses that aren't proven to produce jobs. Here's labor's demand letter sent to Gov. Chris Gregoire and lawmakers on March 17.

Advocates want the extra money raised to pay for programs that pay for health care, services for the poor and create jobs.

The labor council has talked about filing an initiative if needed to close tax breaks, but its president Jeff Johnson told a briefing with reporters at noon today that the labor allies first want to see if lawmakers step up to write a "moral budget" that avoids cuts that harm workers, the poor and middle class.

Just how seriously the activists are taken, we'll see next week – just as Johnson will. When I listened in to part of WSLC's briefing at its Olympia headquarters, there were voices from several quarters in support of bearing down on an estimated $6.5 billion in favored tax rates and breaks (and also the disruptive voices of some radio show that a call-in guest apparently piped in by accident).

Among the so-called "tax loopholes" mentioned by activists is the tax exemption for first-mortgage interest earned by banks (Dep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, wants to tax earnings over $100 million a year), sales taxes not charged on optional plastic surgeries, and favorable tax treatment given to private jet owners. But the bigger loopholes – such as the exemption for food or prescription drug sales – are not on the agenda, according to Johnson.

As a parade of speakers outlined, there will be events almost daily – starting at the state Peace Arch park at the Canadian border near Blaine at 2 p.m. Saturday. On Monday a 5:30 p.m. event is planned at Martin Luther King Jr. Park in south Seattle. And Tuesday the focus moves to the Capitol Campus.

Here's the lineup: ** Tuesday, April 5, is the Call to Action by POWER, the parent welfare-rights group, and other local groups, according to Monica Peabody, leader of the Olympia-based POWER. ** Wednesday, April 6, is the community action rally with carloads of people from around the state, organized by the labor-backed Washington Community Action Network. That group is gathering around noon at Olympia's Capitol Theater. ** Thursday, April 7, is a “protect our future” rally led by Service Employees International Union Locals 1199NW and 775NW. Members from the health-care field are expected to bring patients who affected by past and pending budget cuts. ** Friday, April 8, is the big “We are One” extravaganza that the labor council and Washington Federation of State Employees are making a big push on.

Lawmakers haven't showed much interest so far in closing tax loopholes despite some efforts by Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, and Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, to push for legislation that takes closer reviews of tax breaks or exemptions and examines what jobs they are creating.

"We expect more than a tepid response to that letter," Federation executive leader Greg Devereux said in the briefing.

Devereux said the political environment has changed since the Wisconsin governor's push to limit collective bargaining in that state and he said actions in Wisconsin and other states show "there is no question there is a war on the middle class in this country."

"I think the longer this recession goes on, more people feel it, and the environment does change," Devereux said.

Kathy Cummings of the Labor Council said they have 35 buses lined up and filled for April 8 and that they are hoping for more than 5,000 people at the Capitol. That would make it one of the largest protests in several years.

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