Is Gov. Gregoire being coy?
Asked to list the top impediments to business in the state, Gregoire said she would like to overhaul the business and occupation tax, the state’s main tax on businesses. Calling the tax “ill-conceived” and harmful to small businesses, she invited business leaders to develop a plan for changing the system.
“If you want to come forward with an alternative to the B&O tax system in the state of Washington, the welcome mat is out from me,” Gregoire said.
I suppose there might be a number of B&O alternatives, including a Value Added Tax, or perhaps no business tax at all, but in inviting business leaders to develop their own plan, it certainly sounds like Gov. Gregoire is inviting them to propose a corporate income tax… a surprising invitation from a governor who has repeatedly dismissed even the notion of starting a conversation on such reforms. Encouraging, sure, though considering the longstanding split in our business community over this issue, if she really wants to overhaul the B&O tax, our negotiator-in-chief is going to have to do a helluva lot more than just put out the welcome mat.
The B&O tax is not only “ill-conceived,” it is an historical anomaly. In 1932 Washington voters overwhelmingly approved a personal and corporate income tax, overhauling a tax system that had previously over-relied on property taxes, but when the Supreme Court controversially ruled the new income tax unconstitutional while leaving the new property tax limits in place, the state was thrown into a budgetary crisis. The B&O tax was created as part of a hasty, and presumably temporary, political compromise.
75 years later, Washington’s B&O tax—a tax on gross receipts, rather than profits—remains just as ill-conceived as the day it was implemented, especially during this economic downturn when many businesses are forced to pay taxes on their losses. But while business leaders love to bitch about the B&O’s complexity and burden, they’ve thus far been unwilling to work together to propose a reasonable replacement.
Washington remains one of only five states without an income tax, and while Gov. Gregoire is right that there is currently little public support for a personal income tax, I doubt there would be much public opposition to the corporate variety, if that’s what the business community chooses for itself. And while such a revenue neutral reform would do little to address our long term structural revenue deficit, it would at least be a first step toward that conversation that Gov. Gregoire insists voters have no interest in starting.