This is no time to raise taxes, local Republican lawmakers said Monday, reacting to Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposal to ask voters for a temporary half-cent increase in the state sales tax.
Democrats offered more nuanced responses, welcoming the prospect of new revenue but declining to embrace Gregoire’s specific proposals for budget cuts, new revenue and restored programs.
Under the governor’s plan, which she will submit to the Leg
islature when it meets in special session next week, revenue from the tax would allow the state to “buy back” $494 million worth of cuts to education, social services and community supervision of ex-offenders. That’s about a quarter of the nearly $2 billion in cuts she identified Monday in her “all-cuts” supplemental 2011-13 budget.
Gregoire will begin stumping for the measure across the state Tuesday morning, beginning with a press conference in Vancouver. If the Legislature refers her measure, it would go to voters at a March special election.
Also Tuesday, Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, will hold a town hall on state budget issues from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Clark County Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St., in the sixth-floor commissioners’ hearing room.
Initial reaction to Gregoire’s supplemental budget was mixed on Monday.
Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, reacted indignantly to the governor’s proposal for a new temporary tax.
“Consumers are already strapped for money,” Orcutt said. “Now we think we are going to encourage consumer spending by increasing the cost of consumer goods? That’s going to encourage more Washingtonians to shop online or in Oregon. There are people in Lewis County who are already driving to Oregon to avoid the sales tax” on major purchases, he said.
Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, had not yet studied the proposal carefully, but said, “My guess is that if you ask people about a tax they are all going to pay, they will say no.”
The only way legislators can raise significant money to help balance the deficit is through a general tax increase, Zarelli said. “But it’s still my proposition that we have to write a balanced budget” without new revenue, he added.
“If there’s enough people who want to support taxes, let them take it to the people,” he said. “I don’t see it as a real viable option.”
Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, said he would support referring the temporary sales tax increase to voters. “I think it’s a responsible alternative to an all-cuts scenario,” he said.
But should it pass, he doubted that Gregoire’s proposal to earmark specific programs for restored funding would survive the 30-day special session.
“As it goes through the legislative process there will be a differing set of priorities than the governor’s,” he said.
Restoring the $150 million in school levy equalization funds identified for cuts in the governor’s supplemental budget “will be a big priority for me and for all of Southwest Washington,” Pridemore said. Those cuts would be restored under the governor’s proposal if voters approved the temporary tax.
The new revenue also would save Larch Corrections Center or another of the state’s three minimum-security prison camps from closure, said Department of Corrections spokesman Chad Lewis.
“If there is new revenue we would not need to do early release” of prison inmates to free up beds, “and we would not need to close a minimum-security camp,” Lewis said. Without the new revenue, the governor’s budget would make those and other cuts to corrections programs to save $17 million.
Pridemore, who is serving as interim executive director of the nonprofit Columbia River Mental Health Services in Vancouver, said he’s also very concerned about the proposed cuts to chemical dependency programs. The governor’s budget “eliminated it except for pregnant women and adolescents,” he said.
Gregoire’s all-cuts budget also would cut the Disability Lifeline program, which serves disabled, unemployable adults.
“We keep thinking of that as a cash payment program,” Pridemore said. “It also covers chemical dependency in the form of methadone treatment.” Columbia River Mental Health has about 350 methadone clients; about 200 would be affected. “Those are people who would have a very difficult time staying off heroin without treatment.”
Are voters ready to pay more taxes to stave off deeper cuts?
“My sense is, if the voters take the time to really look at what has happened over the past three years with the state budget, they will understand that we have reached the end,” Pridemore said. “Providing them with this alternative is the responsible thing to do.”
Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, long an advocate for plugging generous tax loopholes, issued a combative statement saying it’s time for more privileged Washingtonians to step up and pay their share.
“Since the recession slammed into us three years ago, we’ve slashed more than $10 billion in basic social services and essential public programs,” he said. “Thousands of state employees have been (laid off.) Still, a few folks chant that old, worn-out ‘Cut the fat, find the waste, end the inefficiency’ mantra.
“The governor has put everything on the chopping table, proposing a mostly all-cuts budget,” Moeller said. “Hardest hit, as always, is our investment in education, K-12 as well as colleges and universities, and our duty to provide a social safety net, such as the Washington Basic Health program. To me, the lion’s share of budget-cutting has been foisted on these programs long enough.”
It’s time, Moeller said, for a new approach.
“Special interests, that comparatively comfortable segment of the economy with plenty of people carrying their water, have fared plenty well … How about instead of telling thousands of elderly and disabled people to be still and tighten their belts, instead of telling thousands of poor people to keep calm, instead of telling thousands of schoolchildren to behave and endure larger classes — how about we look at repealing outrageous tax breaks that have sailed under the radar of any kind of rational reform for far too long?”
As for raising the sales tax — “the very tax that slams hardest at the people who are facing the worst of these bad times,” Moeller said — “maybe I could fathom supporting such a maneuver if it’s part of a much larger drive to close substantial tax loopholes currently favoring out-of-state shoppers, for instance, and out-of-touch Wall Street banks.”
Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, gave Gregoire credit for working hard to find solutions to address the shortfall, but said, “Her proposal hurts education and nursing homes, lacks reforms and has yet to establish priorities.”
“The proposed levy equalization cuts would be devastating to the Evergreen and Vancouver school districts,” cutting nearly $7 million from Evergreen’s bottom line and $8.5 million from Vancouver’s, he said. “Her budget is only a proposal, but what kind of message are we sending our educators, students and citizens about the value of education when we put them on the chopping block?”