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New tax – or wrecking ball for schools and colleges?

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Nov. 26, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
November 25, 2011 5:22 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

One question for the people accusing Gov. Chris Gregoire of grabbing for new taxes instead of downsizing state government:

Where on Earth have you been for the last three years?

Faced with the worst fiscal crisis in a lifetime, she and the Legislature have been paring state services relentlessly.

The K-12 system has been squeezed. Washington’s public colleges have lost a third to a half of their state funding, depending on the school. Health insurance for the poor has been nearly strangled. Many state employees have had wages cut or been laid off. State agencies – large and small – have been turned upside down and had the change shaken out of their pockets.

Even assuming Gregoire got her half-percent sales tax increase, her plan would still inflict brutal new cuts on state social services. Tax increase or no tax increase, her budget kisses off health coverage for 55,000 poor people, for example. Much of the state safety net would be gone one way or another.

She’s proposing the half-cent sales tax – and several smaller increases – to prevent the additional loss of funding for property-poor school districts, another devastating hit to public colleges and the early release of felons, among other things.

Neither the governor nor the Legislature can raise taxes unilaterally; they must get approval from the electorate. If the ultimate choice is between new revenues and further damage to public education, the public ought to be given the chance to make that decision.

We have long opposed any broad state tax increases, including the income tax on last year’s ballot. But we are not prepared to watch the Tacoma and Puyallup school districts each lose more than $6 million a year, Clover Park lose $3.7 million and University Place lose nearly $2 million if existing extra funding for districts with lean tax bases disappears.

By raising $494 million a year, the governor’s tax proposal would prevent those losses. It would also save threatened care for the disabled, community colleges and four-year colleges, and existing levels of punishment and supervision of criminals.

Weigh those priorities against the burden of a three-year, half-percent sales tax. Total personal income in this state is expected to be roughly $324 billion in 2013, the first full year of the tax. The new state revenue would amount to 0.15 percent of that.

That’s not to say it’s a great thing. Sales taxes are regressive; they hit people of lower incomes the hardest. But people of lower incomes also depend most on funding for college opportunity, property-poor districts and care for the most vulnerable – precisely the items the sales tax would spare.

Gregoire’s revenue proposal would do far more good than harm. The Legislature may come up with a less painful way to deal with the crisis; let’s hope so. But if it can’t, Washington voters should be given the choice between an extra nickel on a $10 purchase and another gut punch to the state’s educational system and safety net.

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