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Spin Control: Aviation tax break debate makes strange bedfellows

The Spokesman-Review’s Olympia-based reporter Jim Camden (Colin Mulvany)
The Spokesman-Review’s Olympia-based reporter Jim Camden (Colin Mulvany)

OLYMPIA – For a few minutes Thursday night, a Senate debate took on such an unreal quality that I wondered if the fourth cup of coffee had worn off and I had fallen asleep at the press table.

Spokane-area Republicans, who are among the chamber’s most reliably conservative, were aligning with Seattle Democrats, some of the most reliably liberal. What the …?

The issue was a proposed tax exemption, which, as often happens, is designed to benefit a specific project in a specific part of the state, without coming right out and saying so. In this case, the bill called for a sales tax break to an airplane maintenance company that was “located in an international airport owned by a county with a population greater than one million five hundred thousand.” (So, in other words, Sea-Tac or Boeing Field in King County.)

It’s not an outright gift of taxes but a more complicated “remittance.” The company would get back the sales taxes it pays on building a maintenance facility in four years if it hires a specified number of people, keeps them on the job and pays them an average of $80,000 a year.

Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said it seemed like a good idea to try to get airplane maintenance companies to expand or relocate in Washington, but objected to such a narrow scope for a tax deal. He proposed an amendment to make it statewide, so other airports around the state would have a level playing field when they compete for business. (It seems that when talking about airports, one might call for a level runway.)

Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who is not a huge fan of tax exemptions, stood up to remind his colleagues of that fact, adding if the state was hellbent on offering this one, it should be statewide. Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who has supported closing some existing tax exemptions to get more money into the budget, said this one should be more transparent. “It would be less objectionable if it was not so obviously a bill designed to help one company,” he said. Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, said the state was helping big companies with lobbyists, and not the people.

Some Democratic seatmates disagreed.

The company in question is Gateway Aviation, which has a maintenance facility for large corporate jets at Boeing Field, and plans to expand. It’s either going to do it there or take the project and jobs to Portland, said Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island. Adding all the counties into the deal was heading down a slippery slope, said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, and jeopardizes the jobs.

The amendment wouldn’t keep Gateway from taking the deal, argued Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley. Good for the goose, good for the gander, said Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic.

But some of their Republican seatmates protested. The bill is about enticing one company to build one project in one place, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said, and lawmakers can always expand the exemption statewide later. Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said Gateway’s customers need a big airport to bring their jets to, and plenty of commercial flights in and out so they can leave while the work is being done. Most airports in the state don’t have that.

After Baumgartner’s amendment went down, 26-21, he and Carlyle tag-teamed the main bill with interesting, if not perfectly synchronized, arguments.

“You want to know why people are attracted to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders?” Baumgartner asked. “This.”

The aerospace industry already gets some of the best business tax breaks in the state, and the sales tax on construction is the only retail tax they pay, Carlyle said. “The idea that we need to use state tax policy for Keynesian investments to create jobs is a questionable policy.”

They lost that argument, too, and the bill passed 28-20.

I’m sure of that, because I checked the bill history online the next day. But I can’t swear I wasn’t dreaming about hearing references to economist John Maynard Keynes and Donald Trump juxtaposed in the same state Senate debate.

Say what?

Lt. Gov. Brad Owen traditionally fills time on the final day of a legislative session by needling the senators to whom he’s been listening for months. He pointed out that some repeat their personal history and positions. He singled out Baumgartner, whose antipathy for the state Supreme Court and some of its rulings involving the Legislature is well-known, to suggest some campaign slogans.

“Sen. Baumgartner, a hard-core believer in the Constitution. Except for that silly separation of powers thing,” Owen said, then offered an alternate slogan. “Hey, Supreme Court: Bite me!”

Spin Control, a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments, at www.spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.