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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Sunday Spin: Checking out claims on a dog day afternoon

OLYMPIA – In these dog days of summer, things that would not get a second-look the rest of the year are tested for news viability under much lower July vacation standards in an effort to fill the paper.

Any other time, a press release from one candidate complaining that his opponent was lying about his stance on an issue would likely go straight to the delete file. Lying in campaigns is, after all, a time-honored political tradition constitutionally protected by the state Supreme Court.

But Democrat Rich Cowan’s complaint that Republican state Sen. Mike Baumgartner was lying about Cowan’s stance on a state income tax came with an interesting wager: If Baumgartner could prove Cowan supported a state income tax, he could plant one of his campaign signs in Cowan’s yard. . .

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. . . This had the prospect of being not just a story of a campaign disagreement over a key issue – perhaps with a sidebar explaining all the times state voters have sniffed at an income tax only to recoil as if it were three-day-old sushi – but a photo of Baumgartner pounding a sign into a lawn while Cowan looked on. When news is in short supply, the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words underestimates the value by at least 20 percent.

Unfortunately, plans to pad my journalistic output were thwarted by a couple of things. Baumgartner, when called, said he hadn’t heard about Cowan’s challenge or received the press release. No problem, I assured him, it’s in writing; what’s your proof that Cowan supports a state income tax?

“It’s on Project Vote Smart,” he said, adding the State Democratic Party has a state income tax in their platform. “We have opposition research for these things.”

Project Vote Smart, for those who don’t scour the Internet for candidate info, is a non-profit that sends state and federal candidates a “political courage test” on a range of issues, then posts their answers with information about background and finances. It is a reliable source when candidates respond. But many don’t.

So far this year, Cowan hasn’t. He did in 2012, when running for Congress against U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. In that “courage test” he was asked to rate his support for changes in income taxes and said he favored maintaining the current status for low- and middle income families and slightly increasing it for high-income families.

That’s clearly the federal income tax. Cowan says that’s different from the state income tax, which many would say is the charge made of this paragraph from a recent Baumgartner fundraiser:

“That’s because the Seattle liberals know that my re-election is what will determine whether our fiscally responsible majority stays in control of the Senate and blocks the far-left agenda of tax increases, favored handouts for entrenched special interest groups and increased government regulation that would cripple our state’s economy. That’s why they’ve recruited a left-wing liberal to run against me – someone who supports Obamacare and an income tax.”

But he does support the federal income tax and raising it for some people, Baumgartner said, reiterating the state Democratic Platform advocates a state income tax. That’s true, and has been of the state Ds’ platform for as long as anyone can remember, so not much oppo research needed there. No candidate, however, agrees 100 percent with his or her party’s platform, Baumgartner acknowledged.

Cowan did give money in 2012 to the Inland Northwest Leadership PAC, which gave money to the failed initiative to place an income tax on the state’s highest earners. But I-1098 crashed and burned in 2010, so none of Cowan’s money went to that proposal. Members of that PAC still support an income tax, Baumgartner said. This is probably true, but it’s a bit of a stretch, even under the doctrine of guilt by association.

Republicans using any chance to link Democrats to the unpopular state income tax is no more surprising than Democrats saying Republicans will gut Social Security. Baumgartner’s bigger point, that if Cowan gets elected Democrats will once again control the Senate and push through a state income tax, is also standard rhetoric. But that prediction doesn’t jibe with recent history.

Democrats controlled the Senate, the House and governor’s office in 2011-12. There were several proposals in those years to establish the much reviled tax. A few got hearings but none got out of committee, even though many chairmen were, like, liberal Seattlites.

Baumgartner said he’s not backing off the income-tax-lover charge, although he’s not expecting to put a sign in Cowan’s yard. Cowan, meanwhile has one sure bone to pick in upcoming debates – which will likely provide grist for the mill in some future political story.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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