Callaghan: Sales tax vote pits ‘halfs’ and ‘half-nots’




If Gov. Chris Gregoire gets buy-in from the Legislature — as she very likely will — we’ll all get to vote on a temporary tax increase next March. Call it the Battle of the Halfs.

Backers, led by a governor who promises to “hit the road” and talk to voters, will say it is only a half-cent sales tax increase. That’s such a small price to pay, they will argue, for a three-year tax hike that will backfill additional cuts to public schools, higher education, prisons, and services that help senior citizens and the disabled stay in their homes.

Opponents, led by Republicans itching to regain full control of state government for the first time since 1982, will say it is a half-billion dollars in higher taxes. That’s such a huge price, they will argue, for a tax hike that would partially defray the necessity for state government finally to live within its means.

“Half-cent” sounds so small; “half-billion” sounds so large. This political propaganda game isn’t as tough as it appears. And the debate will play out at the end of another difficult series of legislative sessions.

First comes a special session, which began Monday, during which lawmakers are charged with cutting $2 billion from the current two-year state budget of $32.2 billion. Factors both political and legal ensure that no tax increases will come out of the session — political because 2012 is an election year for nearly everyone except Gregoire; legal because it takes a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to adopt higher taxes.

To put Gregoire’s sales tax referendum on the ballot takes just a simple majority — something majority Democrats can muster on their own.

They’ll be back

In January, lawmakers reconvene for their regular session. Absent even more bad news on the economy and tax collections, they will not have to make additional budget changes. They will, however, be ramping up the rhetoric as the regular session coincides with the lead up to the big tax vote. Gregoire tried out some of those arguments on Nov. 21. The state has cut a lot already; state workers have taken hits to pay, medical coverage and pensions and also faced layoffs; it is a temporary increase expiring in three years; it will be used to buy back additional cuts to schools, colleges, prisons and senior services; state voters surely will step up to help the neediest and to secure the future via education.

Opponents are getting ready as well. The state still spends too much; residents can’t afford it; any tax increase, no matter the size or scope, will damage the economy and delay the recovery; Gregoire is acting politically and cynically by highlighting cuts most likely to evoke sympathy (seniors and the disabled), fear (early release of prisoners) and a desire to invest in the future (education).

If that’s what she is doing, she has tried it before without success. If voters weren’t willing to pay more sales tax on their soda pop, candy bars and bottled water to reduce the effect of cuts, will they be willing to pay more taxes on everything they buy? Perhaps, if only because it seems more fair to spread it around. The implementation and collection is much simpler. And because this sales tax increase doesn’t target specific products, it likely won’t inspire the type of win-at-all-costs campaign that saw Big Pop spend $16 million.

Gregoire said she is hoping the tax issue can be nonpartisan. She even said that as though she believes it, citing the last state sales tax increase in 1983 under a Democratic Legislature and a Republican governor. She could have gone back two years earlier to also cite the sales tax increase by a GOP Legislature and that same GOP governor. But that is as close to ancient history as there is in politics. Republicans have hitched their wagon to the no-new-taxes star for political as much as economic reasons.

After all, that governor who cooperated in the last sales tax increase — John Spellman — not only lost his bid for re-election in 1984 but was the last Republican to win the office.