Opinion Columns & Blogs

Lawmakers blew opportunity to fix our regressive tax system

Looking back at the endless 2015 legislative session, one wonders what might have been.

For years legislative inertia was often bipartisan, whether in the unimaginative, just-starve-government response to the “Great Recession,” or unconditional handouts du jour to Boeing.

For 2015, the Washington Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, complemented by voter demand for smaller class sizes with Initiative 1351, should have been a game-changer — by forcing the Legislature to address K-12 underfunding, and forcing it, finally, to address the nation’s most regressive tax system. Walkouts highlighting the problem made it appear teachers, through sheer doggedness, might teach legislators a long-overdue lesson.

Gov. Jay Inslee and the House Democratic majority did step up with equitable revenue proposals to add some stability to a budget so heavily reliant upon the volatile sales tax. One worthwhile idea was a capital gains tax of between 5 percent and 7 percent, which would be lower than the rate in conservative Idaho (7.4 percent), and much lower than rates for Oregon (9.9 percent) and California (13.9 percent). Each of those states also has an income tax.

No more than 32,000 Washingtonians would pay such a tax.

Unfortunately that small number includes some senators, which perhaps dictated the proposal’s fate, just as it may explain the Senate killing a House-passed (78-20) bill to give voters better insight into elected officials’ finances.

Once, the two parties both gave ground on budget agreements. One thinks not just of the famous parlaying between former Senate Majority Leader Jeanette Hayner, a Republican, and House Speaker Joe King, a Democrat, but of the 2003 budget agreement where, to the chagrin of some of us, the Republican Senate’s budget chair, Dino Rossi, obtained bipartisan support for a budget brokered with then-Gov. Gary Locke. The Senate was always home to relative budget collegiality.

This time a tea party minority of the Republican Senate majority prevented their colleagues from meeting Democrats in the middle. And Democrats would not stand their ground at the risk of government closure.

But is atrophy better than a showdown?

Killing substantive revenue ideas means that our state’s workers, vendors and wards will continue to ride a roller coaster, and we’ll continue cutting vital programs. Gimmicks like inflated pot revenue projections (is every Washingtonian to smoke an ounce a day?) and raiding the Public Works Assistance Account are a recipe for budgetary bow waves.

Following this session, it is imperative to keep the conversation going that started in response to McCleary. With the Supreme Court holding the Legislature in contempt, while keeping penalties on hold awaiting this session’s actions, we lost a window of opportunity as long-term, sustainable solutions were obstructed by ideology.

Must voters take matters into their own hands?