The Great Recession has hit our state hard. In the past two years, we cut over $5 billion for schools, health care, and services that protect our public health and safety. Despite these drastic cuts we still face another $5.3 billion gap in funding for existing public services over the next two years. To give you a sense of what is at stake: $5.1 billion is more than we will spend on all of our prisons, colleges and universities combined for the next two years.
We are in the midst of an unprecedented funding crisis; one that calls for innovative solutions to protect the essential public services that make our community, and our state, such a great place to raise our families and build our businesses.
My colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, continue to say that everything is on the table. Everything? If we are being true to our word, then let me suggest there is an area of our budget that has captured virtually no attention this session in public hearings, work sessions, or legislative briefings – tax breaks for special interest groups.
I am one of only two House members who voted against the three new tax exemptions that have been proposed this session. All three of these exemptions represent great causes, but in the absence of a clear strategy for dealing with current and future tax exemptions, we must draw the line.
As a state, we give out more than 500 “tax breaks” that cost us over $6.5 billion each year, with more added every year. Most of them were borne out of a belief that they would save jobs or lower costs for consumers. There is little evidence that tax breaks accomplish their stated purpose.
To date, only 17 percent of our state’s tax exemptions have ever even been reviewed. We have no idea if these tax breaks to narrow interests outweigh the impact of lost revenue to our schools and the most needy.
Before we consider kicking thousands of people off the Basic Health Plan, stuffing more kids into classrooms, and drastically reducing critical services for seniors, we need to scrutinize every dollar we dole out on tax exemptions and ensure the benefits outweigh the costs to education and health care services we are proposing to cut.
For example, if we ended unnecessary tax breaks for Wall Street banks, private jet owners, out of state coal, and elective cosmetic surgery, we could save the entire Basic Health Plan. These are the types of thoughtful, reasonable trade-offs we should be making, rather than slashing core services.
Because of Initiative 1053, the Legislature can cut education and health care with only a simple majority vote, but a more difficult two-thirds vote is needed to close a special tax loophole. Why should we protect special tax loopholes more than we protect top priorities such as education? If anything, it should be easier to close tax loopholes, and harder to cut funding from schools.
I plan to support legislation that will end unjustified tax exemptions to protect funding for our kids and communities, and bring more accountability and transparency to the tax exemption system. At a minimum, I hope the 2011 Legislature will give the voters this choice. I am confident that a well-informed electorate will choose kids over banks, and the elderly over Botox.
Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Olympia, represents the 22nd Legislative District in the state House of Representatives.