In Our View: Nice Try, Jim but No Ribbon

Proposal to end sales-tax exemption for Oregonians was flawed

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Jim Moeller gave it the ol' college try. Actually, it was more like the ol' Super Bowl try or the ol' World Series try, so vigorous were his efforts to start charging sales taxes to Oregonians shopping in Washington.But the Democrat state representative's proposal (for not the first time) to raise revenue by ending that sales tax exemption appeared to fall by the wayside as the new state budget finally was taking shape on Friday.

"We will try again next year!" Moeller announced in an online comment beneath the story on columbian.com. "The need for comprehensive tax reform in Washington is essential. Washington has the most regressive tax structure in the nation. We grow up, playing by the rules and paying our fair share, we can and should expect everyone else to pay their fair share, too."

Noble words, Jim, but try telling that to Oregonians who would have to decide if they should bother crossing the Columbia River and paying 8 percent more to shop here.

"Oregonians shopping here get an unfair tax advantage in front of Washington," he continued, "which remains the very last state to give a complete tax exemption to all out-of-state residents."

Again, more profound and logical arguments, Jim. We know you see the increased sales tax revenue as a means to fund valued state services, particularly public education. But try selling your plan to merchants in Clark County -- many of them teetering on the brink of collapse -- who would lose business if sales taxes were charged to Oregonians. That's why the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce led the local opposition to Moeller's proposal.

Supporters of his plan -- and their numbers are few -- might ask: How much business, really, would be lost? The answer: We don't know, and that's precisely the point. We're afraid to find out. And our unwillingness to even fuzzily project such losses resembles Moeller's inability to project increases in state revenue; he's unsure how the local economy would be affected. Well, if we don't know, and if he can't be sure, why are we even talking about this?

Late in budget negotiations, the proposal was amended by state Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, to charge sales taxes to Oregonians but allow those shoppers to file for refunds later, if the amount exceeds $25. Too much work, as we see it, especially when two crucial questions remain unanswered. And guess how Oregon shoppers would respond to the new requirement to file for a refund?

Among the few who have agreed with Moeller have been former state Rep. Deb Wallace and Gov. Jay Inslee, who insisted this would not have been a new tax but the end of an undeserved tax break. Really? Try telling the Oregon shopper that it's not really a new tax. It's definitely a tax, and it sure looks new to her or him.

In his official statement, Moeller said, "Now, we can look forward to Monday morning, Jan. 13, 2014, when I'm confident the next regular legislative session will restart the critical work of writing genuine tax reform." No problem with that, as long as it's not done on the backs of Clark County merchants.