Some folks want the people of Washington to think the big issue in our upcoming legislative session is public education. They say it’s all about the children, the schools and the state Supreme Court’s demand that the state spend more for basic education. They insist the only solution is a massive tax increase – like the enormous $8.7 billion proposal the governor laid out last month.
But after you serve in the Legislature a few years, you learn that when people say something is about the children, it’s always about something else. The real debate for 2017 isn’t about the schools – it’s about an income tax.
This is the cleverest campaign for an income tax ever mounted in this state. Advocates for bigger government have created the illusion of a crisis in the public schools that only mountains of money can fix. Through a lawsuit they’ve gotten the state Supreme Court on their side. They would force taxes that dig deeper into everyone’s pockets, slam the brakes on economic growth, and redistribute more of the people’s hard-earned income to state agencies and powerful special-interest groups. Ultimately the goal is an income tax. Yet supporters are bending over backward to avoid using that term – and who can blame them?
Voters have told us time and again they don’t want an income tax – nine times since 1934, most recently in 2010, when they rejected a “high-earners” plan that was only supposed to hurt the rich. Most people recognized it for what it was: an income tax that would quickly be extended to every Washingtonian, the next time the economy has a hiccup.
The objective behind these proposals is always the same. Not “stability,” as Gov. Booth Gardner argued in the ’80s, or “fairness,” as left-wing think tanks and their allies tell us today. It is to raise more money, so the Legislature won’t have to tell anyone no, and lawmakers won’t need to establish hard-nosed priorities as they should whenever they write a budget.
Only one thing is different this time. These groups – the public-employee unions, the teachers’ union, the social-service lobby and others – have finally learned from their mistakes. Instead of telling people higher taxes are good for them, which never works, they are identifying a need. Everyone agrees public schools ought to be our top priority. Even our state constitution says so.
So a few years ago, many of these interests got behind the so-called McCleary lawsuit, claiming the state isn’t spending enough on public schools. They had a point. Over the last 30 years, these same groups had battled for a bigger share of the state budget, and this caused education’s share to shrink. Naturally they figured a tax increase was the only answer.
And of course it wasn’t. Our fiscally responsible Majority Coalition Caucus took control of the Senate in 2013. We had no trouble at all ramping up school spending without raising taxes.
We were able to do it because tax collections have increased every year, thanks to growth in our state economy. All we had to do was give schools most of that new money. Since 2013 we have increased the schools’ budget a whopping $4.6 billion. We still have a complicated school-funding problem – some districts get more money than others. We can solve it by continuing to budget intelligently, maintaining healthy reserves, and reorganizing the system in a sensible way. It really is that simple.
The pro-tax crowd is horrified. It wasn’t supposed to work this way. Every time we avoid raising taxes, the Supreme Court makes new demands. The governor wants the biggest tax increase in state history. The teachers’ union is threatening strikes. Some tax advocates are even working to overturn the 1933 Supreme Court ruling that requires a public vote on a constitutional amendment before a graduated income tax can be imposed.
The most troubling thing about this effort is that advocates aren’t being honest. Ahead of the 2016 election, many candidates for the Legislature evaded questions about the income tax by saying they favor “progressive funding strategies” or “the people aren’t ready for it.” Yet their favorite proposal – an income tax on capital gains – would almost certainly lead to a general income tax, for the same reasons as the proposal voters rightly rejected in 2010.
My biggest wish for the 2017 session is that we debate the income tax openly and honestly, so the people understand what is really at stake. Once that happens I don’t think it stands a chance.
Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, is leader of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.