Camden: Candidates wage war of words over income-tax claim

By Jim Camden, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoJim Camden

In these dog days of summer, things that would not get a second look the rest of the year are tested for news viability under much lower July vacation standards in an effort to fill the paper.

Any other time, a press release from one candidate complaining that his opponent was lying about his stance on an issue would likely go straight to the delete file. Lying in campaigns is, after all, a time-honored political tradition protected by the state Supreme Court.

But Democrat Rich Cowan's complaint that Republican state Sen. Mike Baumgartner was lying about Cowan's stance on a state income tax came with an interesting wager: If Baumgartner could prove Cowan supported a state income tax, he could plant one of his campaign signs in Cowan's yard.

This had the prospect of being not just a story of a campaign disagreement over a key issue — perhaps with a sidebar explaining all the times state voters have sniffed at an income tax only to recoil as if it were three-day-old sushi — but a photo op of Baumgartner pounding a sign into a lawn while Cowan looked on. Unfortunately, plans to pad my journalistic output were thwarted by a couple of things. Baumgartner, when called, said he hadn't heard about Cowan's challenge or received the press release. No problem, I assured him, it's in writing; what's your proof that Cowan supports a state income tax?

"It's on Project Vote Smart," he said, adding the state Democratic Party has a state income tax in their platform. "We have opposition research for these things."

Project Vote Smart, for those who don't scour the Internet for candidate info, is a nonprofit that sends state and federal candidates a "political courage test" on a range of issues, then posts their answers with information about background and finances. It is a reliable source when candidates respond. But many don't.

So far this year, Cowan hasn't. He did in 2012, when running for Congress against U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. In that "courage test" he said he favored maintaining the current status for low- and middle-income families and slightly increasing it for high-income families.

That's clearly the federal income tax. Still, a recent Baumgartner plea for cash read: "That's because the Seattle liberals know that my re-election is what will determine whether our fiscally responsible majority stays in control of the Senate and blocks the far-left agenda of tax increases, favored handouts for entrenched special interest groups and increased government regulation that would cripple our state's economy. That's why they've recruited a left-wing liberal to run against me — someone who supports Obamacare and an income tax."

It's all politics

But he does support the federal income tax and raising it for some people, Baumgartner said, reiterating the state Democratic platform advocates a state income tax. That's true; it has been part of the state Ds' platform for as long as anyone can remember, so not much opposition research needed there. No candidate, however, agrees 100 percent with his or her party's platform, Baumgartner acknowledged.

Republicans using any chance to link Democrats to the unpopular state income tax is no more surprising than Democrats saying Republicans will gut Social Security. Baumgartner's bigger point, that if Cowan gets elected, Democrats will once again control the Senate and push through a state income tax, is also standard rhetoric. But that prediction doesn't jibe with recent history.

Democrats controlled the Senate, House and governor's office in 2011-12. There were several proposals in those years to establish the tax. A few got hearings but none got out of committee, even though many chairmen were, in fact, liberal Seattleites.

Baumgartner is not backing off the income-tax-lover charge, although he's not expecting to put a sign in Cowan's yard. Cowan, meanwhile, has a sure bone to pick in upcoming debates — which will likely provide grist for the mill in some future political story.