Opinion

Dilemma behind state sales tax increase | Bob Roegner

The opening of the special session the Legislature was greeted by several thousand people who are opposed to more budget cuts — and favor Gov. Christine Gregoire’s proposal to add a half-cent to the sales tax, primarily for education.

Republicans wondered if the governor and the Democrats were crazy by talking about putting a tax increase on the ballot.

No they’re not, but there is a combination of different agendas in play.

Gov. Gregoire has always been a strong advocate for education. She believes a strong educational system gives all young people a chance for success. Our future work force and employment needs suggest that the service, medical and technical areas are going to need skilled workers.

After high school, students will choose different directions. Many will need the training and education that community colleges, technical schools and universities provide. Many support the view that “starving the solution” through budget cuts will have long-term negative implications on young people and businesses. Gregoire’s proposal would allow the state to “buy back” some of the cuts that will be made in the special session.

Due to the economy, the governor and Legislature have been forced to cut back on much that has been built to improve all levels of education. They raise the question about tax increases because they feel the next round of cuts simply goes to far and may undermine the educational system.

But there are also other needs, such as corrections guards in prisons, along with care for the elderly, the disabled and the poor. Last year, voters rejected a state income tax, and this year added $30 million in expenditures for service providers.

State leaders tried putting a tax on soda pop and candy, but those industries spent significant amounts of money to defeat it. That leaves elected leaders with very few options.

The sales tax doesn’t have a built-in special interest group to provide opposition; it is spread across the board.

That makes it politically attractive in most parts of the state. Less so in populous King County, where it would hit 10 percent, although recent polling shows surprising support.

And a general sales tax can also be used for a lot of other needs, which translate to potential voter support if enough groups benefit. That will play a role in determining what the final package looks like.

However, the Washington Education Association (WEA) isn’t on board yet, and rightfully notes that a sales tax hits low-income people harder. They would rather close tax loopholes for businesses and tax the wealthy. But if an agreement can be found on a tax package to go to the ballot, the next issue will be “when.”

Should it go on the ballot in the spring? That would be the hardest time to pass it, due to low voter turnout. Local school districts have always felt spring elections were their “turf.” School superintendents won’t be very pleased with that idea. The Federal Way School District recently announced it would have two issues on the ballot after the first of the year. But if the goal is to actually help save education and other state programs, spring is the only time that can actually help.

If you wait until the fall 2012, money would not start coming in until mid-year 2013 — 18 months from now, assuming the increase passed.

As you can see, the whole discussion is fraught with difficult political choices. But there is also another one. The November date has some political appeal.

A big voter turnout will help Democrats, particularly if they can get the 15-20 percent of young people who turned out to elect President Obama. Those voters didn’t turn out last fall, and the Republicans made significant gains nationally and locally.

Currently, there is speculation that the same thing could happen in 2012. But if the ballot includes enough high-profile items that appeal to those voters, it could improve their participation. And conventional wisdom is that education and social needs appeal to them.

The debate is a reflection of our national discourse and is an interesting dilemma. Raising taxes and providing services to people who need them, including educating our youth. Or continue cutting services and potentially jeopardize our educational system and some citizens’ survival.

Two different views. How would you vote?

Governing isn’t easy and the political backdrop of state and federal elections in 2012 isn’t going to make it any easier.

 

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