A political fight over tax breaks for large out-of-state banks peacefully intruded into an Olympia bank branch lobby this morning.
Five activists with the Service Employees International Union went inside the Bank of America branch to ask the manager to sign a petition in favor of closing a tax exemption. The targeted exemption mostly favors large, out-of-state banks like the Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America that got heavily into mortgages through its purchase of troubled Countrywide Financial in 2008.
SEIU's team of five was ordered to leave before any of them got their message across to the manager. But outside, about 100 members of SEIU 1199NW held signs and chanted a clear slogan: "We want basic health care, not corporate welfare!"
Protesters had a big petition for their campaign to close tax breaks in order to raise money for the state's endangered Basic Health Plan. House Bill 1847, introduced also week, would set a $100 million limit for the share of a bank's first-mortgage interest earnings that are exempt from state business-occupation taxes (B&O is levied as a percentage of gross receipts, not profits).
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It was the first stop on a lobbying day for activists who are bent on finding new revenue to save pieces of the state's social safety net that is under threat by budget cuts.
The BHP has become a rallying point for healthcare advocates, and Seattle Rep. Eileen Cody’s HB 1847 would close several tax exemptions to specifically save Basic Health.
Democrats in the House and Senate also have been looking for ways to save Basic Health's subsidized insurance coverage for more than 50,000 low-income workers in Washington – at least through June – without new revenues.
"It's the whole safety net that is being shredded," SEIU spokesman Jonathan Rosenblum said outside the bank, adding that major businesses with exemptions need to do more to share the sacrifice required by the economic downturn. "Just as the governor and Legislature have put programs on the chopping block, they should put the tax breaks on the chopping block."
Dave Fisher, a lobbyist who speaks on behalf of state banks, said in an interview today there are one or two state banks that also could be affected by HB 1847 and that a smaller exemption would raise the costs of mortgages.
Fisher also said that banks were neutral last year on a tax measure that did pass – a so-called "nexus" bill that, he says, added a $180 million a year tax on bank industry activities that occur inside the state.
"So it's not like we are just trying to be blind to the financial woes of the state," Fisher said.
The prospects for Cody's bill are quite uncertain and even House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, was noncommittal about it last week.
But SEIU's volunteers who came from around the state say they are just getting started in their campaign. The stop at Bank of America was just their first of the day – en route to a full day of meeting legislators and trying to show there is broad public support for their goals.
Several said the safety net needs help after cuts that already are hurting clients in need of healthcare in community clinics.
Emerita Espinoza works in outreach and referrals to specialists for patients who come into Community Healthcare’s Lakewood clinic, one of seven it runs in Pierce County. She said there are patients with insured, many without it, and some covered under state programs that are in jeopardy – such as Basic Health and Disability Lifeline. The clinic has seen state grants cut and could face more cuts to medical interpreters and for maternity services.
"We only take six new patients without medical insurance per week, and the number of uninsured increases. They lose their jobs and lose their insurance," Espinoza said, adding that the clinic turns people away.
Pamela Keeley, a nurse at Swedish Hospital in Seattle with nearly 40 years' experience, works in an organ transplant and dialysis area of the facility. "I'm seeing the whole health care institution implode. It's a real domino effect " Keeley said.
She described a man who received a new kidney, went home with medications to limit his body's rejection of the new organ and then lost his job and health care. He could not afford the medications and returned in tears.
Some return and are rehospitalized, receiving very costly care. "It's absurd. It's like shooting yourself in the head," Keeley said.
Susan Tekola, a Harborview Medical Center nurse in a neurosurgery specialty unit, told much the same story about stroke patients. "When you don't take the blood pressure medications you have strokes," she said. "My concern is who is taking care of their bills of these patients?"
Some wait for days in Harborview waiting for charity care that lets them be moved to a nursing home, Tekola said.
But all that's complicated stuff. Those like SEIU spokesman Jonathan Rosenblum found it hard to deliver the message to the bank manager when they went inside.
"You have to go outside," Nick Wagar, the local manager, told them. Rosenblum and the others asked him questions about the tax exemption, and one asked Wagar to sign a petition to limit his company's tax break.
"It's the first I've heard of it,” Wagar said. As for the petition he said he was the wrong person to talk to. "We understand," Rosenblum replied.
Wagar asked them to leave, which they did, then ordered doors locked along Fifth Avenue.
Britney Sheehan, a Bank of America spokeswoman based in Seattle, later said in an email the bank has been "privileged to do business" in the state for more than 140 years through banks it has purchased here.
"We know that our success is dependent on the health of Washington's economy and the vitality of the communities we serve. We understand the passion the protesters have for this issue, however we don't agree with some of their statements or approaches," she added without elaboration.
Keith Looby, an Olympia retiree in the bank on business, said he disliked seeing the protest. "They're so out of line it's pathetic," Looby said. "If they have a beef with the government they should be up there."
And he pointed toward the Capitol.
Little did Looby know, but that is where the protesters went -- after stopping to eat box lunches in a meeting room of a nearby hotel.