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Mon., Oct. 20, 2008, midnight

Our View: Statistics aren’t as black and white as some say

Nobody likes to pay taxes. Governing without them would be a snap, but it can’t be done. Cutting taxes is cheered. Raising them is jeered. It is an emotional issue and one that is susceptible to demagoguery and deception.

Which are you most likely to believe?

A. Only four other states impose heavier taxes than Washington state.

B. Thirty-four states tax their citizens more than Washington state.

Most people are predisposed to answering A, because they’ve probably heard a politician or initiative hawker proclaim that Washington ranks fifth in taxation. The editorial board has heard this a few times during endorsement interviews.

Tim Eyman, who runs a full-time initiative business, says it all the time. Never mind that such a fact would not speak ill of his continual efforts to lower taxes. How can a guy who claims to have saved the taxpayers more than $11 billion also claim that we’re still crushed by taxes? It’s like a police chief pointing to record arrests but claiming that the city is just as scary as ever.

The answer, as you might have guessed by now, is B. The state has the 35th highest level of personal taxes and is in a statistical tie with Mississippi, at 8.9 percent of total income. The national average is 9.7 percent. The answer is at the Tax Foundation’s Web site, but you’ll also find that Washington is ranked fifth when factoring in federal taxes. That’s because the federal income tax is progressive, meaning that the rich pay at a higher rate than the poor.

Washington state has a lot more rich people than Mississippi. They send a lot of money to the U.S. Treasury. But it is a statistical crime to include their federal taxes in a calculation of the level of personal taxation imposed by state and local governments.

Look at it this way: If Bill Gates Jr. moved to Spokane, the city would shoot up in the rankings of most-taxed. But nobody’s taxes would change.

Because this is such an emotional issue, it’s important to know the facts. State and local governments have been relatively prudent when it comes to taxes. We are not advocating any general tax increases. We are not calling for tax cuts. But we do think it’s important for citizens to know where we are, especially as governments grapple with a sagging economy.

Be on the lookout for politicians who sign pledges to never increase taxes. “No new taxes” is as thoughtless as no new bonds or no levies or no new service cuts. It’s putting on blinders before viewing the big picture.

Balancing budgets is hard. Sometimes a tax increase would be foolhardy, but there are instances when a tax increase is merited. President Reagan agreed to multiple tax increases, including a bump in the payroll tax that bolstered Social Security. Politicians who say they’ll never raise taxes won’t be at the table when the concessions on spending and other budget decisions are hammered out.

Pragmatic conservatives in this region have advocated tax increases to help the mentally ill and to sustain bus service. Business leaders statewide got behind the nickel gas-tax increase.

They looked at the facts and then made a decision. That’s the kind of leadership we need.

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