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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Jay Inslee might have mentioned ‘bold’ tax plan sooner

When the governor announced that he would seek major tax increases to fully fund schools and meet other pressing state needs, he called it “bold.”

“This is a big, bold thing that we’re proposing here,” Gov. Jay Inslee said at a news conference Dec. 13. “But I will just tell you we are a big and bold state.”

Also at that news conference, he said: “This is big, this is bold, and this is the right thing to do.” On Twitter, he wrote: “This budget makes a bold statement about what we value in Washington.”

Lots of folks apparently agreed. Word for word.

In a news release praising the budget, the Washington Education Association called it … “bold.” The state association of school administrators: Bold. State Democrats: Bold. The liberal Washington Budget and Policy Center: Bold. The Faith Action Network: Bold. The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance: Bold. The Seattle Times editorial board: Bold.

In many ways, the word is apt. Inslee is proposing $5.5 billion in new taxes between the capital and operating budgets, the first step in creating a budget that will eventually emerge from the sausage grinder looking very different.

It would raise taxes on business services, capital gains and carbon emissions. It would spend billions on improving teacher salaries and training, and direct money to local school districts, where some residents would see property tax reductions.

It is big and – in an environment where his political opponents squeal about taxes singlemindedly – bold. And in a state that has pressing needs, from improving school funding as ordered by the Supreme Court to fixing a disastrously broken mental health system, the notion that we need new revenue for the government makes sense.

So, OK. Bold. But you know what would be bolder? If Inslee had boldly told everyone before the election that he intended to be so bold after it.

Instead, what he did was slip and slide, minimize and divert, make semantic dodges and vaguely leave open windows of possibility, which has long been his approach. He said the state needs to bring in more money, but emphasized closing tax loopholes and hoped-for economic growth.

Oh, and also: “There might be a couple other things we’ve got to do,” he said at one point.

A couple other things. About 6 percent of the overall tax revenue proposed in his budget would come from eliminating tax breaks. Those couple other things make up the difference.

I don’t oppose these proposals – and I particularly don’t oppose introducing and debating them. As the governor’s budget materials point out, state revenue collections have declined by 30 percent as a portion of the state’s economy in the past three decades. But the failure to speak more forthrightly reflects something deeply immature in our politics.

His critics on the right call him a liar on this question, as they have for years. (Reporter Melissa Santos of the Tacoma News Tribune performed an excellent examination of the issue last week.) In his 2012 campaign, Inslee promised to veto new taxes, only to later approve increases in tax revenue. In his most recent campaign, he was more cautious, but his intent was clearly not to leave the impression that he was getting ready to push for big tax hikes.

I don’t think he broke a campaign promise or lied outright. But he walked right up to that line, speaking with such vagueness and caution that he seemed to be trying as hard to suppress ideas as to express them.

Some people might roll their eyes about this. Politics as usual. People are cynical about what politicians say, politicians continually soft-pedal any sense of cost or consequence in their proposals, and those who voted for Inslee almost certainly did not expect him to take an anti-tax line.

But we’d all be better off if we could be more grown-up about the costs and benefits of government. Campaigns operate with an infantile attitude toward taxes; one side treats them as a cancer with knee-jerk thoughtlessness. The other tries to play along feebly – as Inslee has repeatedly illustrated – without quite playing along.

Heaven forbid anyone actually just said: I want to raise taxes and here’s why.

Inslee and his keepers have defended him on this count, insisting that these tax options were “on the table” during the campaign. They have said that budget projections, economic forecasts and other key pieces needed to complete this budget were not yet finished during the campaign.

Some of that is doubtlessly true, but it’s also true that these taxes Inslee has proposed are versions of taxes he has proposed and fought for in the past. It’s hard to imagine he didn’t have a few specifics in mind when he was speaking so generally back before the election.

After all, when he introduced his budget on Dec. 13, he did it with man-on-the-moon rhetoric.

“We’re the state that built the Grand Coulee Dam, we’re the state that built the Boeing 747, and we’re the state that can fully fund basic education after 30 years,” he said.

He could well be right. But it’s hard not to think he could have boldly mentioned it sooner.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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