In the autumn of 2004, about six months after the death of my horse’s ass initiative, and about six months before I would start blogging, my fellow activist Steve Zemke somehow managed to arrange a meeting for us with House Speaker Frank Chopp and then House Finance Committee chair, now State Treasurer, Jim McIntire. Our purpose was to urge them to pursue some sort of progressive property tax reform in an effort to preempt Tim Eyman’s next initiative, but the conversation drifted broadly toward our structural revenue deficit, and thus inevitably, to an income tax.
Both Frank and Jim supported an income tax—in theory—but neither seemed too keen on raising the issue anytime soon. In fact, I clearly remember Jim warning me that any attempt to push an income tax prematurely could set our efforts back by a decade or more.
But Jim did put forth one scenario in which he could envision an income tax passing voters, a thesis I’ve since heard from other Olympia insiders, and which I’ve dubbed the “Phoenix Model.” Under this scenario, a brutal economic downturn combined with a decades-long erosion of our sales tax base could create a budget crisis so severe that legislators and voters would have no choice but to resort to an income tax, or… dramatically reduce the role and scope of Washington state government. Out of this budgetary Armageddon a new tax structure would be born, so the theory went, like the mythical phoenix rising from its own ashes.
So… um… aren’t we in that scenario now?
How much worse does the budget crisis have to get before voters and their elected officials accept that we cannot build a 21st century economy on the back of an early 20th century tax system? How many more hundreds of thousands of Washington citizens must be thrown off the health care rolls or denied a college education? How many businesses must flee our state or avoid starting up here due to the lack of an adequate transportation system or educated workforce or any number of other vital investments in public and human infrastructure?
How many billions of dollars must our budget be in a hole, and how many consecutive budgets must this hole be plugged through cruel cuts and regressive stopgap measures before the emergence of political leaders who are more concerned with long term solutions than with short term political gains?
In the Senate, I have been heartened by the leadership provided on this issue by Majority Leader Lisa Brown, and by the public support displayed by Senators Kohl-Wells, Regala, McDermott, Murray, Kline, and Fraser. Folks in the know suggest that should a high-earners income tax come to a vote in the Senate, Brown could likely corral enough support to put it on the fall ballot.
But from the House leadership, all we hear are crickets.
If House Finance Committee chair Ross Hunter (D-48) were to take the lead on a high-earners income tax he could rally support behind it and perhaps even push it to the floor for a vote. Yes, I know he’s focused on passing the education reforms on which he’s passionately dedicated himself for years, but few of these reforms are possible without the funding to back them up. And yes, I understand that he plans to run for King County Executive, but taking the lead on a high-earners income tax could be exactly what he needs to grab the edge with Seattle voters over Seattle liberals Larry Phillips and Dow Constantine.
But Hunter isn’t even technically a member of the House Democratic Leadership. So where’s Rep. Larry Springer (D-45) who represents an Eastside district where education funding routinely tops the list of voter concerns, or Rep. Zack Hudgins (D-11) a guy at least as comfortable palling around with DFH’s like me as he is with Olympia power brokers? Where’s my own representative, Majority Whip Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37), a long time member of the Tax Fairness Coalition who represents citizens about as adversely effected by our regressive tax structure as any in the state, and who would suffer mightily under the proposed cuts?
For that matter, where the hell is our entire Seattle House delegation?
Yes, I know, I know, I know that Frank is as steeped in the conventional Olympia wisdom as the majority of the observers in the establishment press, and I know that he fears for his majority. And I know that Frank doesn’t really believe a high-earners income tax could pass voters, regardless of its surprisingly good showing in recent polls. But he can be nudged. He can be pushed. He could even be shoved.
Frank’s not a monolith. He is open to persuasion, and he does change his mind. But he’s clearly not going to take the lead on this issue on his own.
That’s why for those of you in the House who believe that an income tax is the only solution to our long term structural deficit, and who understand that after the federal stimulus monies disappear and a temporary sales tax increase expires, we’ll be right back where we started, even with an economic recovery—and I’m confident that covers the majority of the Democratic caucus—the only responsible thing to do is to stand up and take the lead on this issue now, while we actually have an opportunity to pass it.
Don’t wait for Frank! He’s way behind the electorate on this issue, and while I’m confident he’ll do the right thing and do it well once he’s brought up to speed, he’ll never get there unless some influential members of his caucus clear the way.
If a temporary sales tax increase was a sure thing at the polls, I’d understand your reluctance, considering the dire consequences should a revenue measure fail. But it isn’t. And in many ways, a high-earners income tax has considerably more political upside than any sales tax proposal.
So take a look at the recent the polling, and dive into the details. Talk to your constituents and listen to their concerns about further regressivity. And then somebody, anybody, please stand up and take the lead.