By SEN. TIM SHELDON
This will sound funny anywhere outside Olympia, but there is a question that for years has stumped half the Legislature. If an income tax is so good for the people of the state of Washington, why do they say no every time they are asked?
Advocates of higher taxes and spending have tried just about everything. Big income taxes, little income taxes, income taxes dedicated to noble purposes and income taxes that are only supposed to hurt millionaires. Yet the people keep voting no — 10 times since 1934. The last time, in 2010, the margin was 64-36 percent — so big you’d think they’d learn a lesson.
Well, they did. This year they think they finally have the problem licked. This time they just aren’t going to ask.
The Legislature appears poised to enact an income tax this year, all by itself, without a vote of the people. Senate Bill 5096, favored by the governor and many members of my own party, enacts a starter income tax on capital gains. The big selling point is that only the rich would pay — though of course, if it survives court challenges, it could be extended to everyone, and of course it would be. They’re even trying to avoid calling it an income tax — they call it an “excise tax on capital gains income,” as if a tax by another name somehow smells any better.
But what really troubles me is the notion that the people are so foolish that the Legislature needs to force an income tax on them whether they want it or not.
I don’t think the people have been saying no because they fail to appreciate that an income tax is a wonderful thing. I think they understand all too well this is just a way for government to reach deeper into their pockets.
This is the longest-running debate in state history, nearly 90 years and counting. I’ve been watching it longer than most, as the longest-serving member of the Legislature. Shortly after I was elected to the House in 1990, I was appointed to Gov. Booth Gardner’s tax commission. We went around the state, gathering testimony on tax reform, but the real purpose was to drum up support for the governor’s income tax plan.
I felt sorry for those presenters from the Department of Revenue. They did their best. They talked about the same theories we hear today, about fairness and the urgent need to give state government more money. The people just stared at them like they were from Mars.
The people saw through it then, and I’m sure they can see through it now. There’s no limit on where this might go. They know once a tax like this one gets onto the books, even a small one, it’s going to grow and grow, just like in every other state that has tried soaking the rich.
This year’s debate illustrates the enormous gulf between the people and the Legislature that is supposed to represent them. Bypassing the public calls our credibility into question. Are we even listening?
The people have spoken so often and so loudly against an income tax that I think we really ought to be interested in their opinion. I suspect there will be a public vote anyway if this tax passes, in the form of an initiative or referendum to overturn it. I hope my fellow lawmakers see it as a referendum on their elitism. I don’t think the people have been saying no because they are dumb. I think they have been saying no because they are smart.
Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, represents the 35th Legislative District and is the longest-serving member of the Legislature. Visit him online at http://www.senatortimsheldon.com.