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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Pacific NW

Any tax talk carefully couched

David Ammons Associated Press

OLYMPIA – Is it finally safe to talk taxes?

Democrats, newly in charge of both the Legislature and the governor’s mansion, are widely expected to embrace at least a modest tax hike before adjournment this spring. The early talk is “sin taxes” and an array of fees, and not an increase in the Big 3 – sales, business and property taxes.

Two-term Gov. Gary Locke proposed a $600 million package just before leaving office this month, and Democrats’ key allies aren’t shy about promoting a tax increase to help patch a $1.8 billion spending gap.

Still, Democrats are gun-shy, perhaps remembering that their last big tax gulp, a $1 billion hit in 1993, paved the way for a Republican landslide in 1994. And voters just turned down a tax increase for education and have adopted a series of tax-limit initiatives.

“It’s always an interesting dance,” says House Finance Chairman Jim McIntire, D-Seattle.

Newly inaugurated Gov. Christine Gregoire, who won by only 129 votes and still has a cloud hanging over her young administration, reflects her party’s initial reluctance to talk about taxes.

Gregoire campaigned on a loosely worded no-new-tax platform, saying that the state is just pulling out of recession and shouldn’t be raising taxes. But she didn’t – and still doesn’t – rule out a tax hike.

“It’s just premature” to speculate, she said the other day, adding “My goal is a no-new-revenue budget.” But she always adds a carefully worded afterthought that holds the door ajar. She said she’ll produce a no-new-tax budget late next month and then see what the implications are for higher education, schools, health care and other priorities.

She told reporters that “when” she looks at ideas for new revenues, she won’t accept anything that harms the economy. But mid-thought, she interrupted herself, saying “if I ever do” go there. In a later interview, she said she wouldn’t accept a sales or business tax increase.

Legislative leaders aren’t much more willing to talk explicitly about taxes yet, although Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, acknowledge heavy spending pressures.

Their budget leaders, House Appropriations Chairwoman Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, and Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, are more candid if asked directly about taxes.

“It’s impossible to whack your way out of this – that can only go so far,” Prentice says.

Legislative Democrats, like Gregoire, are following the customary timeline of the reticent. The idea is to avoid talking about the endgame now and to carefully sequence the show.

First, they’ll spend the lion’s share of the session laying the groundwork with members and the public, “scrubbing” the budget for savings. Then they tally the wish lists, including the expensive requests of their political allies, such as salary increases for teachers and state employees, and decide whether it can all be accommodated within existing revenue.

If the gap is considered politically impossible to close without additional revenue, then lawmakers quietly, privately begin crafting tax plans – and how to market them to their own members, an occasional crossover Republican and a skeptical public.

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