Voters beware: A vote for a Democrat is a vote for a state income tax. So say attack ads appearing in mailboxes and on TV screens across Western Washington in recent weeks.
It’s a common theme popping up in several legislative races this year. So far, at least 14 Democrats in competitive swing districts have been accused of being sleeper agents for a state income tax.
Republicans say it’s a fair charge. Democrats say it’s hogwash.
“I just cannot, and do not, and will not support any income tax mechanism. It’s a meritless claim,” said Democratic state Rep. Christine Kilduff of University Place, who is locked in a close race with Republican Paul Wagemann of Lakewood. She is one of the 14 who deny supporting an income tax despite ads that imply the opposite.
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In most of the ads, the logic goes like this: Big-time Democratic donors, such as the Service Employees International Union, have called for income taxes. The state Democratic Party itself has a platform supporting a state income tax while reducing other taxes like the sales tax.
Though the candidates deny supporting such a tax now, those powerful forces will expect them to vote for one anyway once elected, according to Republican organizers.
“You really are, in politics, judged by the company you keep,” said state Rep. J.T. Wilcox, who chairs the House Republican Organizational Committee.
Community Progress, the PAC sending out many of the income tax advertisements, is funded by nearly $1 million from the Reagan Fund, the political arm of the House Republicans. The state Republican Party and the Good Government Leadership Council, a political action committee associated with Senate Republicans, has paid for others, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Wilcox said the promises made by swing-district Democrats can’t be trusted, and pointed to Gov. Jay Inslee’s broken 2012 campaign pledge not to propose new taxes as evidence. Inslee proposed a capital gains tax in 2014 that would have affected fewer than 1 percent of people in the state, according to estimates from his office.
“I think people are quite sensitive now about Democrats who claim to be anti-tax during an election and change their mind in January,” Wilcox said.
Kristine Reeves is one Democrat running for the state House who has been targeted by the Community Progress ads. Though she has routinely disavowed supporting a standard income tax, she said, “the mailers keep coming.”
“I think people want to think it’s a whole wink and a nod, smile and a check” situation, Reeves said. “That’s not how it works.”
Reeves said the state does need new revenue to fix the way the state pays for education, as required by the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision. Many Democrats and some Republicans agree with her.
But a standard income tax is not the right approach to raise the money, Reeves said, in part because her district strongly opposes it. Instead, she said the state should find cash by first closing tax loopholes and then look at other options.
Reeves said she is open to having a conversation about a capital gains tax, which taxes profits made from selling capital assets such as stocks. Some Republicans consider it a tax on income since some people financially rely at least partly on capital gains.
But the ads often don’t make the distinction between a capital gains tax and a standard statewide income tax.
A standard income tax is “something that would hurt people who are just getting by in my district,” said Mike Pellicciotti, another Federal Way-area House candidate being tied to the tax. Pellicciotti, who is running against Republican Linda Kochmar, said he would rather focus on politically viable solutions to McCleary rather than “turning to the income tax bogeyman.”
Adam Glickman, a spokesman for SEIU 775, the union’s largest local branch, said the organization doesn’t expect candidates who get its donations “to support every single thing we’ve ever supported or might support.”
Political wings of SEIU have given more than 2 million this election. Most has gone to Democratic Party political arms and PACs — including Our Votes Count and New Direction, which have been spending on Democratic candidates’ behalf. Several Republicans also have received money from SEIU 775.
Even if swing-district Democrats renege on their promises if elected, there are significant roadblocks to a standard income tax besides vocal opposition from Republicans. Inslee has said he doesn’t want one, though he hasn’t committed to vetoing one should it cross his desk.
A graduated statewide income tax also could be ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.
Kevin Carns, director of the Reagan Fund, said that’s not a big enough barrier for Democrats, who could try and find politically friendly judges to overturn past precedent on the issue.
Glickman said that while the SEIU 775, which represents more than 40,000 home health care workers, supports an income tax, it doesn’t “think there’s path forward on that specific issue in the foreseeable future.”
The union SEIU 775 is looking at a capital gains tax, property tax reform and closing loopholes as other options to change the tax system.
Carns points to Inslee’s broken promise in maintaining that Democrats might change their tune about an income tax should the Legislature swing to Democratic control.
“This isn’t just some fantasy we concocted,” he said.
At least 14 candidates have refuted advertisements saying they support an income tax. Here they are, sorted by district:
Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah
Rep. Christine Kilduff, D-University Place
Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek