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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Sunday Spin: Some tax ideas to break the budget logjam

OLYMPIA -- Things have been pretty quiet around the state Capitol lately, even though the Legislature is in double overtime. (Jim Camden/The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA -- Things have been pretty quiet around the state Capitol lately, even though the Legislature is in double overtime. (Jim Camden/The Spokesman-Review)

At the beginning of double overtime for the Legislature tied in knots over its budget options, Gov. Jay Inslee tried Tuesday to help things along by suggesting some taxes that lawmakers should just scratch off their lists.

Senate Republicans should give up their plan for a shift in property taxes that would result in an overall increase in taxes for some residents and an overall decrease for others, he said. House Democrats should abandon a capital gains tax on people who have more than $25,000 in investment income. 

Inslee himself seemed unwilling to give up his hope for a carbon tax, something he has advocated for several years without getting much traction in either chamber. But if hope springs eternal anywhere, it is in a politician’s breast.

The real problem with raising existing taxes or instituting new ones, however, is that all are unpopular with someone. Taxes and their various loopholes are really government’s way of encouraging good behavior, discouraging bad behavior, or both. So we tax gasoline for money to build roads, but also to make it a little more pricey to drive around, thus cutting the amount of gas guzzled and noxious fumes emitted. We put taxes on cigarettes, booze and pot to discourage use, realizing if people want those things they’ll pay and if they don’t they won’t feel bad if others pay.

The challenge is finding some that are popular with many, and hated by few.

If Spin Control were allowed behind the closed doors of the next budget negotiations, we’d suggest a few ways to raise money that might go over well with the public.

A special tax on PowerPoint presentations, in recognition of the fact that hardly anyone likes to sit there while someone projects a slide onto a screen with six bullet points, then proceeds to recite the bullet points that everyone can read. The state could computer manufacturers on a program that records and reports whenever a PowerPoint presentation is used, so it could levy the tax based on the presentation’s length. Failure to pay promptly would double the assessment and put the scofflaw in a room for a day to watch random presentations others have put together.

A language abuse assessment for public officials with an escalating structure for mangling of words and syntax. A small fine the first time one uses “literally” to describe something that is only figurative, or an event or idea as “very unique” or advocating some action irregardless of consequences. Then more if it continues. This admittedly might be hard to get through the Legislature, where some of the most common violators are. 

An acronym tax on any public document, speech or commercial that tosses around acronyms, abbreviations or intialisms that go beyond a list that everyone knows, like FBI, CIA and WTF. This would treble for any drug company that makes up an acronym for some new pharmaceutical they are peddling for a condition they’ve created. 

A special Business and Occupation tax rate for consultants on campaigns that raise and spend more than $50,000. Anything under that could arguably be called grass-roots, although there should be a language fine for misuse of that word. Above that level, they’re likely to be spending like computer nerds at a strip club, so the public that has to endure their actions should be compensated. The tax rate would double out-of-state consultants in an effort to boost local employment. The state should also get 10 percent of any contribution not from Washington, to discourage outsiders from trying to influence our elections. 

Colleague Jerry Cornfield pointed out there actually was a proposal last year for a B&O tax change that would effect campaign donations, with the money going to help pay for civics education. It didn’t get anywhere; if lawmakers would think bigger, and use the money for public schools in general, that could change.

A visiting athlete’s assessment for professional sports teams coming into Washington. This, too has been proposed in various forms but never received traction, in part because the ideas were a bit complicated. Let’s simplify: Any visiting professional team must pay a fee of $1,000 for each of its top five players, based on salary, if they take the field for a game in Washington state. That means baseball teams could decide not to use their top hitters, ace starter or best closer against the Mariners if they thought it wasn’t financially necessary. But with bases loaded in the 12th, they might decide it’s worth the money to bring in a slugger to pinch hit. The player would be exempt if he or she lives in Washington in the off-season and pays property taxes on a home worth at least $1 million.

A porn tax, at three times the going sales tax rate, on hard-core publications, videos and assorted adult devices. Something similar was proposed about 10 years ago but caught flak from free speech groups. Some folks might also balk, saying most porn has shifted to the Internet, but if the state can go after online shopping outlets for sales tax, it should be able to train its tax collectors on porn sites. Plus, who’s going to argue against this tax and risk being exposed as someone who would have to pay it. 

With these on the books, we would have enough money to upgrade public schools to the state Supreme Court’s satisfaction, cover everyone’s pet programs and let the Legislature go home for good, long before anyone had to worry about a partial state government shutdown.

The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.