February 11, 2009 in City

Porn tax proposed to buttress budget

By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – Washington has long had sin taxes, but they’ve usually been on things like tobacco, liquor and beer.

Now, with Washington facing a big budget shortfall, a state lawmaker from Federal Way has an idea for a new one: a porn tax.

“Somebody brought this to me, and I said, ‘Wow. Well, why not?’ ” Rep. Mark Miloscia said Tuesday night. Half a dozen other House members, none of them local, have signed on as co-sponsors.

Miloscia’s House Bill 2103 would add an extra 18.5 percent sales tax to “adult entertainment materials and services.” In a decade in Olympia, he said, it’s the first tax bill he’s ever proposed.

The money – and no one in state government seems to have yet tried to pencil out how much it might be – would help pay for social service programs. In December, Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed doing away with a state program called General Assistance for the Unemployable. It provides health coverage and a $339-a-month stipend to people deemed unable to work, often due to mental illness. Advocates say the program is a critical safety net to prevent homelessness.

Over the next two years, Washington faces a budget shortfall that some lawmakers say could reach $8 billion. “It’s the crisis of a generation,” said Miloscia.

His bill would cover things that “are primarily oriented to an interest in sex.” Among them: magazines, photos, movies, videos, cable TV programs, “telephone services,” audio tapes, computer programs, and unspecified paraphernalia.

Books or magazines with no photos would be exempt. So would videos that don’t contain X-rated sex, according to the Motion Picture Association of America’s standards.

It’s at least the second time such a proposal has been floated in Olympia. In 2004, Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington, proposed a virtually identical plan: Senate Bill 6741. It didn’t even get a hearing.

Both bills maintain that “adult entertainment materials and services result in increased costs to the state through the provision of increased governmental services, including human services and criminal justice services.”

But there’s a major loophole in the proposal. It wouldn’t try to take on Internet pornography. “The Internet is really tough to tax,” said Miloscia. “The Internet is Wild West.”

And even as the bill’s prime sponsor, he says it has “low odds” of actually becoming law this year.

“Tax increases tend to be the issue that people do not support,” said Miloscia. And he noted that Gregoire has repeatedly said that she will not raise taxes during an economic crisis.

To improve its odds, Miloscia said, he’s willing to send the proposal to the ballot for a statewide vote. He’s confident it would pass.

He also thinks the proposal will be largely immune from a major argument against business taxes: that they’ll drive businesses to other states.

“My constituents, while they care about Microsoft or Boeing … I don’t think the adult entertainment industry is an industry that my constituents would worry about going out of state,” he said. The plan, he said, “is perfect.”


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