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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Senate can’t muster votes to pass constitutional amendment against income tax

OLYMPIA – An effort to change the state constitution to make it harder to impose an income tax failed Tuesday when opponents pointed out it’s already very difficult and the Legislature isn’t likely to try.

Senate Republicans proposed a constitutional amendment that would prohibit an individual state income tax because voters have repeatedly turned down such a tax.

“This sends a clear message to voters we have heard what they said,” Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, said.

Democrats argued a new amendment isn’t necessary because a state Supreme Court ruling in 1933 already makes an income tax unconstitutional in most instances. The debate was a waste of time, they said.

The Senate wastes time debating the state oyster and other bills no one cares about, Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said. Keeping the state free of an income tax is an advantage for attracting new high-income residents to Washington, including top athletes.

If that were true, the Mariners would be getting all the free agents that are going to the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, countered Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle.

Waste of time or not, the debate continued for more than an hour, although it was readily apparent the amendment didn’t have the necessary two-thirds majority. Baumgartner and Spokane Democrat Andy Billig sparred over where Washington ranks among other states for its tax burden.

Behind the other states in the region, Billig said. No way can Washington be described as an under-taxed state, Baumgartner said.

Republicans raised the specter of judicial activism. The current Supreme Court could approve an income tax if a city were to pass one, said Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley. Olympia tried but failed to do that last year.

“This activist court does not give hardly any deference to what the Legislature does,” Padden said.

Voters seem comfortable with the court considering three of its members were overwhelmingly re-elected last fall, Frockt said.

Democrats said they should be amending state laws on property taxes to let school districts know their revenues weren’t going to be cut next year. If that legislation doesn’t pass, some 560,000 students will have less money for their schools next fall, Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said.

“We will not be cutting schools. We will be negotiating the size of increases for schools,” said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

The constitutional amendment eventually got 27 yes votes but needed 33 to meet the two-thirds threshold. Senate Republicans then tried to quickly bring up a proposal for a capital gains tax on upper income investors – which they argue is a form of income tax – to prove the danger of such a tax is real.

But Democrats objected to suspending the rules for such quick consideration, and debate on that bill was blocked by a rule Republicans approved earlier in the year that requires a two-thirds vote to consider tax measures.

Senate Joint Resolution 8204, a constitutional amendment prohibiting a state income tax, failed on a 27-22 vote because it needed a two-thirds majority. Among Spokane-area senators, Republicans Mike Baumgartner, Mike Padden, Mark Schoesler and Shelly Short voted yes; Democrat Andy Billig vote no.

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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