This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
Democrats who kicked off the legislative session energized by their license to tax are finding liberation hard to manage.
It’s been nearly 12 weeks since Gov. Chris Gregoire sounded the all-clear to raise taxes. Yet with just 11 days in the regular session to go, lawmakers remain far apart on how to proceed.
Gone is the resolve of early January, when lawmakers arrived in Olympia looking determined to talk turkey rather than make like the ostriches they impersonated last year. Today, legislators aren’t hiding so much as looking lost.
Their newfound freedom appears to have left them adrift. To tax or not to tax was never the hardest choice facing the Legislature. Deciding whom to tax is far trickier.
The hemming and hawing prompted the governor earlier this month to offer her own tax proposal – anything to start the debate. Lawmakers must rue that they ever gave the governor the opening.
Gregoire stepped off the curb first, but she wasn’t about to throw herself under the bus. Her $605 million package of targeted tax hikes might have been a screamer last year. In 2010, it’s what passes for restrained.
The Senate upped the ante considerably last week, weighing in at the high end with $918 million in additional taxes. As of Friday afternoon, the House still hadn’t offered the “means” to pay for its “ways,” as one reporter put it. House Democrats want to get to $857 million in new revenue – they just haven’t figured out how.
The debate between the two chambers seems to boiling down to one of taxing strategy, not magnitude. The Senate favors a three-tenths of a cent increase in the sales tax; the House is said to be eying a much smaller sales tax increase if any at all.
Targeted tax hikes have significant advantages over more sweeping hauls. They tend to be smaller and less likely to breed dependence, making them easier to rescind when the budget improves. They also don’t turn a shotgun on the economy when a rifle will still hurt plenty.
Whatever type of tax, lawmakers have yet to prove that they need near what they’re asking. The burden is on the House and Senate to show why they need more. They also must check their generous assumptions about how much help Washington will be getting from the feds.
Gregoire did a respectable job of sheltering the most critical programs with her $605 million take. Her petroleum tax is a loser – but that $150 million hole could be plugged by additional cuts proposed by the House and Senate. Furloughing state workers and asking them to pick up increases in health care benefits would reap $89 million alone.
Bleed the state reserves a bit more as the House does, pick one or two of the loopholes from the Senate’s long menu or adopt a few real reforms (combining natural resource agencies saves $11 million), and lawmakers are there.
Time is running short if the Legislature wants to avoid a special session. The options won’t get any more appealing the longer legislators stay.