In his Sunday “Smart Bombs” column, Spokane Spokesman-Review Associate Editor Gary Crooks takes on some common budget myths, and comes to a conclusion that might surprise a lot of his readers.
The best way to measure a state’s tax burden is to total up personal income and divide it by how much money the state collects. […] The same holds true for spending, which was about 6 percent of total income for a decade, then declined. That’s probably surprising to most people given the Republicans’ drumbeat on “out-of-control” spending. Spending has increased in recent years, but a lot of that was to make up for budgetary hits after the economic swoon of the previous recession and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The state then began making up for lost funding on voter-approved initiatives on teacher pay and class sizes and had to backfill pension payments that were delayed to help balance the previous budget.
To get an idea how much the “spending burden” has declined, it was 5.9 percent of total income for the 2003-’05 budget. This is the much-ballyhooed “tough” budget shepherded through the Legislature by then-Sen. Dino Rossi. Now we’re looking at 5.18 percent. And, yes, even the “Rossi budget” spent more than the state collected.
HA regulars are well familiar with this analysis, but I can’t tell you how heartening it is to read it in the op-ed pages of a major daily, especially considering that the editors at our own Seattle Times have been so aggressive at spreading the myth Crooks so effectively busts. But perhaps the Times refusal to accept this reality has less to do with their inability to do the math, and more to do with their refusal to accept Crooks’ inevitable conclusion.
It’s the tax code, stupid. The problem with measuring the affordability of taxes and spending against total income is that the state doesn’t have an income tax. The above calculations help explain why it should. The state is relatively rich, but it has a tax code that’s unsuited to tapping that wealth. The result is that high-income households send relatively large sums to the feds and relatively paltry amounts to the state. Conversely, the state taxes the poor at the highest levels in the nation because of the heavy reliance on our regressive sales tax.
If the state instituted an income tax and lowered the sales tax, it could begin to address its chronic budget deficits and lower the tax burden for most Washingtonians. It’s the same argument that was laid out by the Gates Commission several years ago, but lawmakers failed to act.
The paper of record for Eastern Washington joining me in advocating for a state income tax? Welcome to the radical fringe.