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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Camden: Results of new Washington tax poll were no surprise

By Jim Camden
Published: March 15, 2023, 6:01am

You may or may not have heard of the proposed new “wealth tax.” Supporters argued during a legislative hearing last week the proposal would have strong public support based on a recent poll that suggests some two-thirds of voters would back a new tax on the “very wealthy.”

Well, duh.

It conforms to a long-established rule for enacting new sources of state revenue: Don’t tax you, don’t tax me. Tax the guy behind the tree. Or in this case, behind the gated walls of those mansions we can’t really see but sure must be outrageously expensive.

To boost support for a proposed special property tax on wealth derived from stocks, bonds and other financial assets above an assessed value of $250 million, the Senate Ways and Means Committee was presented with a poll of registered voters who were asked a series of questions about taxes. Do they think taxes were too high, about right or too low for a person with a net worth of $5 million? While 10 percent said too high, 40 percent said too low.

When the net worth was moved up to $50 million, 8 percent said too high and 53 percent said too low. Moving it up to $1 billion, 9 percent said too high and 58 percent said too low.

There’s no reason to doubt this was a properly conducted random sampling of voters, as it was done by a reputable firm. But that suggests few if any of the respondents would fall into any one of those three income categories, so answering the question was pure guesswork. They wouldn’t know what a person in those income brackets pays.

The real questions might be whether the 8 percent to 10 percent who said the taxes were too high would say that about any tax levied at any level, and how much those percentages would rise as the net worth approached their own.

The poll also showed support for the services that the money from such a tax might help pay for, such as schools, health care, affordable housing, child care and special education.

Again, duh. Those are all popular issues, and if someone else is going to pay for them, what could be better?

Asked about support for tax proposals the Legislature might consider, 66 percent said they would support a 1 percent tax on “financial property” valued at more than $250 million and 62 percent would support such a tax on such property above $50 million.

If the state were run by plebiscite, this would be a real cause for concern for opponents — as well as the public in general — because a drop of $200 million in net worth didn’t shake the support out of the poll’s 4.4 percent margin of error.

So what would happen if it were property above $5 million? Above $500,000? Above $50,000?

Were the Legislature to become captive to basing decisions on poll results, lawmakers might be tempted as the years progress to drop the threshold lower and lower.

The poll also showed how supporters could mount a campaign to defend such a tax — should it pass the Legislature — in a predictable referendum that opponents would file and might easily qualify for the ballot. It asked whether respondents thought “the ultra-rich should pay what they owe in taxes and not expect working families to continue to subsidize more than their fair share of taxes to support our roads, schools and infrastructure.” Four out of five agreed. Duh.

They also asked whether the Legislature should rewrite tax laws “so nothing stands in the way of us providing a great life for our families”; make “the wealthy few pay what they owe us in taxes”; and whether legislators have a responsibility to “ensure that billionaires and wealthy corporations pay what they owe the public through a wealth tax.” About three out of four agree with those three statements. Duh, duh and duh.

After those questions, respondents were asked again if they supported or opposed increasing taxes on the wealthiest individuals in the state, and support went up 10 percentage points to 77 percent.

Well, duh. The real surprise is it didn’t go higher.