Washingtonians are proud of our great outdoors. Perhaps that’s why 72 percent of us dedicate an average of 56 days a year to recreating outside. And when we venture out, we generate significant economic activity – visiting destinations and restaurants, hiring guides, visiting Main Street, and gearing up. All that activity keeps us healthy. It also keeps our state coffers healthy, to the tune of $2 billion in state and local taxes annually.
Nationally, Americans contribute over $125 billion in taxes off the back of outdoor recreation. Some of the costs come in the form of embedded tariffs on products that can reach 20 percent of wholesale or more. Given the size of the contributions, it should come as no surprise that the taxes outdoor enthusiasts pay are multiples more than what government reinvests in our public lands and outdoor recreation infrastructure.
Unfortunately, to fill current funding gaps some lawmakers in Olympia are defaulting to more taxes instead of reviewing budget priorities or seeking broad stakeholder support for a more sensible path forward. Without much of any stakeholder consultation, a small group of state legislators recently introduced House Bill 2122 to establish a new sales tax on items utilized for “recreational activities” that retail for over $200.
The bill is rife with intractable problems. According to the Department of Revenue, this tax could be applied broadly – and oddly – to such things as swimming pools, telescopes and playground equipment for children. At the same time, DOR says the bill will raise minimal new dollars. There are carve-outs for indoor and team sports; for certain products like firearms, snowmobiles, ATVs, bicycles and watercraft; and for those who can demonstrate they have a hunting or fishing license.
Small businesses remain the backbone of the outdoor recreation economy. In many towns, they represent economic lifeblood and contribute substantially to a sector that statewide supports 200,000 jobs. They and their customers would be hurt most by the added burden of such an ambiguous, gerrymandered excise tax. The small business community doesn’t need the government to add more challenges to their well-being.
More broadly, the point of designing, developing and selling outdoor gear and apparel is to encourage and make it easier for Washingtonians to get outside and enjoy our state’s natural wonders. Our industry is helping Americans build memories, refresh their spirits and strengthen their family bonds and friendships.
As a country where mental health and broader health care costs are approaching 20 percent of GDP, where we are concerned about a weakening social fabric, and where many are concerned that new generations are growing up disconnected from nature, the outdoors can be healing in so many different ways. Tax structures and revenue generation should be conducive to positive behavior like enjoying the outdoors, not deterrents.
Once the legislative session ends, we’d suggest a restart to the funding conversation, this time inviting in the breadth and creativity of the state’s outdoor recreation stakeholders.
Eric Artz is interim president and CEO of REI; Dan Nordstrom is CEO Emeritus of Outdoor Research; and Paul Fish is president of Mountain Gear.
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