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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington income tax would target top earners

Eyman uses announcement to push tax block initiative

Nora Kelley, vice president of the Service Employees International Union, assembles information packets Wednesday in Seattle on an initiative to establish a state income tax on wealthy residents.Associated Press photos (Associated Press photos)
Curt Woodward Associated Press

SEATTLE – Hoping to tap a populist surge following the recession and corporate bailouts, liberal activists want to implement an income tax aimed exclusively at Washington state’s wealthier residents – couples pulling in $400,000 or more annually.

Washington is one of seven states without a personal income tax, and voters have rejected attempts to establish a personal or corporate income tax four times. But the last statewide votes were in the 1970s, and sponsors of this year’s campaign have clearly sensed a political shift.

The effort comes about three months after voters in neighboring Oregon upheld higher income taxes on couples earning more than $250,000. New York, Maryland and other states also have increased taxes on their wealthiest residents in recent years.

Sponsors of Washington’s proposed ballot measure are coupling their “high-earners” income tax with a 20 percent cut in the state property tax and an expansion of the credit for business and occupation taxes.

With that combination, Initiative 1077 will be marketed as a major tax overhaul that helps middle-class families and small businesses, while asking for a bit more from the rich – or, as prominent tax-reform advocate Bill Gates Sr. put it Wednesday, “the top 3 percent – who can afford to pay.”

“We’ve talked about the need for serious tax reform in this state for a good many years … and for years, nothing has been able to be done,” said Gates, father of the Microsoft Corp. co-founder. “So today, this day, we’re going to begin to do something.”

The campaign will need to collect more than 240,000 valid petition signatures by July 2 to qualify for the November ballot. Sponsors said their campaign would include labor, business and civic leaders.

Any organized opposition campaign could take time to develop, but criticism and predictions of failure were already flying Wednesday.

Conservative activist Tim Eyman, who showed up at the coffee shop hosting the income-tax announcement, said I-1077 would almost certainly make the ballot because of its wealthy supporters. But he didn’t think voters would go along with it, particularly following the recession and fresh state tax increases on beer, soda pop and service businesses.

“It is the Holy Grail for the progressive movement,” Eyman said. “They probably should have had this event at a church because it requires so much faith.”

Eyman said the drive for an income tax illustrates the need for his Initiative 1053, which would reinstate a difficult two-thirds threshold for the Legislature to raise taxes.

The proposed initiative sets out two tax brackets. The first tax rate would be 5 percent of the portion of joint income exceeding $400,000, or over $200,000 for individuals. The tax would increase to 9 percent on the portion of income that exceeds $1 million for couples or $500,000 for individuals.

Advocates said it would raise about $1 billion per year for education and health programs.