In Our View: Sales Tax? Not Yet

Quest to fund education must go through public employees as well

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The solutions are not easy, falling somewhere between painful and draconian, and we empathize with the difficult decisions facing Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature in the wake of continuing and increasing revenue shortfalls.

The governor’s latest proposal, released Monday, calls for various cuts in expenditures and various measures for increasing revenues. But the one that grabs the attention is a request to increase the state sales tax through 2015.

Gregoire has asked the Legislature to pass along a 0.5 percentage-point sales-tax increase to voters. Lawmakers would need to approve the measure by the end of next month in order to have it in front of citizens for a public vote in March.

The knee-jerk reaction is to wonder why Gregoire is wasting her time, as well as ours. Just last year, voters soundly rejected a state income-tax proposal and approved a two-thirds majority requirement that makes it more difficult for the Legislature to raise taxes. Voters made their feelings about new taxes abundantly clear, which gives Gregoire’s latest proposal the stench of a horse that has been beaten one too many times.

Still, Gregoire insisted this week, “After three years of cutting, now is the time to invest in a better future for all Washingtonians — for all of us to take responsibility and yes, spend a half-penny more. I believe Washingtonians will stand with me. I believe they are tired of tearing down the services our parents and grandparents built — services that reflect the special values of Washington state.”

That is a direct appeal to the fairness and largesse of the people of this state. Yet it will fall short until lawmakers insist upon making the salaries and benefits of public employees an equal player in this lingering budget crisis.

Three weeks ago, Gregoire asked state-employee unions to again renegotiate their contracts, as provided for in times of economic emergency. This follows last year’s reworking of public-employee contracts, a negotiation in which Gregoire asked state workers to pay 25 percent of their health-insurance premiums, then settled at 15 percent — an increase from the previous 12 percent.

That was a significant sacrifice for public employees, but it appears inadequate when we consider that state support for higher education has been cut in half over the past three years — cuts that are mostly passed along to the public in the form of tuition increases. With K-12 funding largely protected by the state constitution, higher education has taken the brunt of budget cuts over the past couple years, and those are cuts that will be felt for generations in the form of a less-educated workforce.

Other state employees, much like the private sector, have suffered. But our leaders still have insisted upon treating reductions in their benefits as an afterthought, as a measure of last resort, as a tackling of union backers that are too big and powerful to beat.

Until Gregoire can demonstrate that state employees have sacrificed at a level commensurate with private employees, any request for a tax increase is a nonstarter.

As Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said: “To talk about raising taxes at a time when people are out of work and can’t afford it suggests an insensitivity to what the citizens of this state are going through.”

Considering the results of last year’s balloting, we think Hewitt has a better read on the mood of voters than does Gregoire.

The governor’s sales-tax proposal calls for a temporary tax that would be scheduled to expire in three years. It would raise an estimated $494 million annually and would be used to prevent deeper cuts to higher education and public schools.

It’s a difficult situation created by extraordinary times. But a tax increase for all of us, in the form of a sales tax, just doesn’t feel right.