Jayne: Two perspectives on how state can raise more money

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 
photoGreg Jayne, Opinion page editor

I don’t have the answers.

Washington, according to a think tank called The Tax Foundation, ranks 27th in the United States as far as state/local tax burden. Is this accurate? Is this fair? Does this mean the state should raise (or lower) taxes?

The elephant in the room, of course, is the McCleary decision mandating an additional $6 billion or $7 billion or some other unfathomable amount for K-12 education in the next four years. Where will the money come from? Can it be found without raising taxes?

I don’t have the answers. Then again, I don’t have to. So I asked those who do need to come up with a solution, reaching out to all of the legislators from Southwest Washington. Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, and Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, wrote back with detailed, thoughtful insights.

Perfect. You couldn’t ask for more diverse perspectives.

Moeller, for example, takes aim at the fact that Washington has no state income tax and, therefore, is dependent upon the sales tax.

“Washington has the MOST regressive tax system in the nation,” he wrote. “Those that can pay the least pay the most.

“The tax system in this state is a pig (with lipstick) as it is. We try and make it fair(er). For example, the largest tax exemption is on food, and we try to mitigate its recessive nature by providing services to the poor, and at the same time encourage investment and job growth by creating tax ‘exemptions.’ It’s madness and unsustainable!”

The exclamation point is Moeller’s, not mine. Guess he wanted to drive the point home. But he saved his most pointed comments for the people on the other side of the aisle when discussing K-12 education.

“I hope our Republican colleagues understand that we cannot ‘find’ 2+ billion dollars that somehow got ‘lost’ in the seat cushions or by some accounting trick. If we are going to meet the McCleary decision by 2018 we are going to need new revenue.”

The $2 billion likely refers to only the 2015-17 budget that will be discussed next year. The overall price tag for McCleary, by all accounts, will be much higher.

Taxes too high?

Which brings us to Rep. Pike, who presented some studies suggesting that Washington’s tax burden actually ranks higher than 27th. “Let’s talk about reality,” she wrote. “The reality is taxes are too high in Washington.”

In a meeting with The Columbian editorial board recently, Pike proposed: “We fund education first, before any other state priority. The other party isn’t keen on funding it first, because they want a general tax increase to fund all that other stuff they want the state to pay for. If we fund it first, that means some things that aren’t as high a priority as public education are probably going to fall off the table at budget time, and I’m OK with that.”

Like what? What things?

“Things that maybe we shouldn’t be in the business of doing.”

Such as?

“That’s a really good question.”

In her follow-up email, Pike spelled out three areas for cutting costs and increasing revenues:

• “Eliminating barriers to existing and new businesses.” The idea is to increase wealth, which will increase sales-tax revenue.

• “Remove incentives for able-bodied people to collect prolonged, long-term benefits.” Pike favors gradual reductions in state unemployment insurance, food stamps and “the plethora of other generous benefits offered to able-bodied citizens who have chosen to stop looking for work, and instead have opted for a lifestyle of government assistance.”

ª “Reform public pensions of new government workers.” This would leave in place promises the state has made to current employees, but would change the rules for new hires.

Does that amount to looking under the couch cushions for lost change? I don’t know. The complete responses from Moeller and Pike have been posted on Facebook at Greg Jayne — The Columbian.

In the meantime, I’ll remain grateful that I’m not the one who has to come up with the answers.