On the 2016 campaign trail, many Democrats in swing districts repeatedly denied Republican claims that they wanted a new statewide income tax to pay for public schools.
Now Republicans are now trying to get them to go a step further and explicitly ban such taxes in the state’s constitution.
A bill introduced by state Sen. Phil Fortunato, a Republican from Auburn, would send voters a constitutional amendment in the next general election to prohibit all forms of state and local income taxes.
“We pay enough taxes,” Fortunato said, adding many voters do not support a graduated statewide income tax.
But before Senate Joint Resolution 8204 reaches voters, it must get Democratic votes in the House and Senate. Republicans have a slim hold on the state Senate, but not enough to muster the two-thirds majority vote needed for a constitutional amendment. Democrats control the state House.
Fortunato said the amendment would end speculation that Democrats would try and pass some type of income tax in the future.
Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, a Democrat from Maury Island, said her caucus isn’t about to pass a new income tax. But it also isn’t interested in erecting another barrier to one, she said, because public sentiment could change.
“The voters at this point in time have said ‘we do not want it,’ ” she said. “But to try and go ahead and look practically 50 years forward, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
A state income tax faces significant hurdles, even if Democrats were making a concerted push to implement one.
For starters, the state Supreme Court has ruled graduated income taxes — which tax people based on how much money they make — as unconstitutional in the past, although the court could overturn that precedent.
A flat income tax is thought to be allowed in the constitution, but it faces opposition not just from Republicans but also some Democrats who are concerned it would disproportionately tax people who make less money.
Fortunato’s bill also seeks to ban taxes on capital gains such as the proceeds of selling stocks. Many Republicans contend they are a form of an income tax, but many Democrats draw a distinction between a standard income tax and a capital gains tax, which usually affects fewer people.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed taxing capital gains above $25,000 for an individual or $50,000 per couple, as a way to raise money for the court-ordered fix of the overreliance on local school levies to pay for the full salaries of teachers and other school employees.
Inslee’s capital gains tax would exempt income from retirement accounts or from selling a home. The governor’s budget office says the plan would tax fewer than 50,000 people in the state.
State Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, a Democrat from Federal Way who was attacked as being a sleeper agent for a new income tax during last year’s campaign, brushed off Fortunato’s proposal as a distraction to complying with the state Supreme Court’s school-funding case known as McCleary. Though he “certainly” opposes an income tax, Pellicciotti said he has more pressing issues than a ban.
Rep. J.T. Wilcox, a Republican from Yelm, said enshrining a prohibition on all income taxes in the constitution “would probably allow us to concentrate more on the viable options instead of the nonviable options” in meeting McCleary.
Fortunato said he didn’t expect his bill to pass. But it starts a conversation, he said.
“If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” he said. “You never know.”