I’ve written quite a bit about an income tax recently, prompting several readers to point out that such a measure would be unconstitutional, a standard rebuttal I routinely get from state lawmakers whenever I directly raise the issue with them.
The Washington Supreme Court has already ruled an income tax unconstitutional, and since neither house of the legislature is likely to coax the two-thirds majority necessary to put such a controversial amendment on the ballot, any debate about such a reform would be fruitless at best, and a distraction at worst. Or so the argument goes.
Well… not exactly.
Washington voters did overwhelmingly pass a graduated income tax via initiative in 1932, only to have it tossed out by the state Supreme Court the next year. It’s a complicated issue, but essentially the court defined income as property, thus requiring any such tax to adhere to the uniformity clause of the state constitution. Consistent with this ruling and other restrictions in Article 7 of the state constitution, the state can at most levy a flat one percent annual tax on income, with a household exemption of no greater than $15,000.
That said, all of the legal experts I’ve heard comment on the issue are of the opinion that the 1933 decision would likely be overturned if it were reargued today. Several other state supreme courts have since ruled that income is not property until it is converted to an asset, and in fact the case law guiding the court in 1933 has itself been overturned. As public finance attorney Hugh Spitzer explains:
[T]here is ample reason to believe that a modern income tax, established by the Legislature or by the voters, would now be upheld. The basic reason is that [Culliton v. Chase] was based on an earlier Washington case which the State Supreme Court clearly misread. More importantly, the earlier case was based on a line of United States Supreme Court cases that have subsequently been reversed. Our Court would likely take a “clean slate” approach to the income tax today.
So while yes, any income tax measure would surely be challenged under Culliton, Spitzer argues that there is a “reasonable likelihood” that this 1933 decision would be overturned.
That’s why I am strongly of the opinion that as both a strategic and pragmatic matter, the constitutional issue is little more than a red herring. In fact, it’s worse than that. It’s an excuse that Democratic leaders have been falling back on for decades to avoid the difficult and dangerous political challenge of embarking on real tax structure reform.
It is, I admit, possible that a high-earners or other form of income tax might ultimately require a constitutional amendment to enact into law, but that approach should only be taken as a last resort, and only after the people have already demonstrated popular support at the polls.
Any income tax measure — in fact, any substantive tax measure at all — will inevitably come before voters, either referred directly to the ballot by the legislature, or via citizen initiative or referendum. That is the indisputable reality of our current political climate. Thus the reasonable political course of action is to let voters have their say, and then the courts, ignoring the Culliton decision entirely.
If voters reject an income tax, then any prior effort to secure the two-thirds legislative majority necessary to put an amendment on the ballot would have been wasted. If voters approve an income tax, but the court rejects it, then the legislature has the popular mandate necessary to come back with a constitutional amendment. And if both voters and the courts approve an income tax measure, well, then it finally becomes law.
But since the people must ultimately have their say, what should be abundantly clear is that the 1933 decision can only become an obstacle to substantive tax reform if the legislature chooses to make it one.
So enough of this “an income tax is unconstitutional” bullshit. A) It’s probably not, and B) It doesn’t matter… at least not when it comes to strategizing how one might actually achieve an income tax, should that really be your objective.
Of course, if you oppose even the prospect of an informed public debate on an income tax, by all means, raise the constitutional issue. Just don’t expect me to treat your objection as anything other than what it really is.