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Eye On Olympia

Republicans continue to campaign against something virtually no candidate is proposing…

On the way in to work this morning, I caught a radio ad from Puget Sound legislative candidate Alex Rion, who suggests that electing his Democratic opponent is a dangerous step down the road to a state income tax.

This mirrors campaign ads in Spokane, where Democratic state Rep. Don Barlow and another Democratic candidate, John Driscoll, have been accused of calling for a state income tax. (Barlow says he’d consider it in the long term but not in this economy; Driscoll says he’d consider it — but only if it reduced other taxes. Here’s this morning’s story on the Driscoll ad by staff writer Jonathan Brunt.)

And Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire’s also been blasted for allegedly supporting a state income tax, over comments she made at a Spokesman-Review editorial board meeting. She essentially said the same thing — that it’s something to eventually consider, but not now.

The thing is, virtually no major politician in Washington in recent memory has publicly called for an income tax. And if they’re calling for it privately, even advocates of such a tax acknowledge that there are some major legal and political hurdles in the way.

The Economic Opportunity Institute , for example, notes that even the few times over the past 7 decades that state lawmakers have managed to muster the necessary 2/3 vote to amend the state constitution to allow an income tax, voters have repeatedly rejected the idea in ensuing statewide votes. And even if a new state Supreme Court decision overruled decades of precedent to say that such a tax requires a constitutional amendment, the group says, Initiative 601 likely would require the same legislative two-thirds and a statewide ratifying vote of the people.

Even in a Legislature that’s overwhelmingly tilted toward one party, as Olympia’s is, it’s very difficult to get a two-thirds vote on any issue of any controversy.

Just as important, look what happened to the last major candidate to campaign on the issue: King County Executive Ron Sims, who ran in the Democratic primary against Gregoire four years ago.

Sims’ plan was part of a broader push for tax reform: it would have reduced or eliminated the state’s slice of the sales tax, lowered property taxes, and eliminated Washington’s highly unusual tax-your-gross B&O tax in favor of a more typical tax on net profits.

“He may be right that a core of Democrat stalwarts are for it, but it’s no winner for a statewide race,” independent pollster Stuart Elway told the Seattle P-I at the time.

And Elway was right. Two months later, Sims lost to Gregoire in a landslide, more than 2 to 1.

Five bills backing an income tax have been introduced in Washington’s statehouse since 2003. None were sponsored by more than 5 of Olympia’s 147 lawmakers. Only one — 2007’s SJR 8209, sponsored by Sens. Rosa Franklin and Jeanne Kohl-Welles — even got a hearing. All died quickly in committee.


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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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