I was reading the other day that this year’s Legislature raised taxes by $480 million. This was news to me and I think to just about everyone on my side of the aisle, mainly because it isn’t true. That hasn’t kept our Democratic colleagues from claiming it. The whole thing is a little odd. If the Legislature really had increased taxes by a half-billion dollars – why would anyone consider that something to brag about?
The real issue is that the Republicans drove the agenda this year and that makes it a little hard for Democrats to declare victory. The signature Democratic idea went nowhere – a massive tax increase we never needed. That plan died of natural causes. Not even the majority Democrats in the House were willing to vote for it. Here it is the end of the session, and they have to find something to cheer.
So right now we’re seeing the most outstanding bit of revisionism since the Russians invented the airplane.
We raised $480 million in taxes? Not true at all. Individual House Democrats started tweeting out this claim the day before the session ended. The governor said it again at a news conference on July 10th. The House Democratic Caucus repeated it in a tweet July 16th– though for some reason this latest version ratcheted it down to $450 million. Could that have been a typo?
Here’s the truth. This year’s Legislature reduced the net burden on the people of Washington.
This claim is based on the fiscal note for Senate Bill 6134. The bill raises $185 million in the next biennium. Over the next four years it raises $480 million. The problem is that our entire budgeting system is based on a two-year cycle. Just about every number we use in the Legislature is a biennial figure. When somebody uses a four-year figure, without explaining why, the nicest thing we can call it is an exaggeration. If we wanted to play the same game, we could say the Democrats proposed a $4 billion tax increase (the four-year figure) rather than $1.5 billion (the two-year figure).
Why, exactly, anyone would want to celebrate the passage of a wildly overstated tax increase is hard to figure. But I suspect it becomes easier to justify what happened this year. It doesn’t sound good to say we spent six months in Olympia arguing about a tax increase we never needed in the first place.
Honestly, we didn’t need any additional money to balance our budget proposal. However, as always, the spending plan got bigger during the course of negotiations.
The rest of the story: Of that $185 million, only about half comes from ending tax exemptions and preferential rates. The remainder is a little hard to call a tax hike. That money comes from increased penalties for late payments and efforts to step up collection of existing taxes from out of state firms. When you consider the tuition cut we passed this year, really a tax cut for the middle class, and the roughly $35 million in tax preferences we enacted and extended, the final budget deal actually reduced the total burden on the state.
Credit where it isn’t due. I don’t want to fault anyone for embracing a good idea. However, it is a little strange seeing so many credit “Democratic leadership” for this year’s big tuition cuts – when that party’s leaders fought so hard against the idea, right to the end. We faced huge resistance from House and Senate Democrats when we proposed it. For months we battled red-herring arguments that this would damage the state’s tuition-savings program or hurt low-income students by limiting state need grants. An email sent by the Senate Democratic Caucus even declared that our tuition proposal placed “millionaires over the middle class.”
The tuition cuts are probably going to be the thing people remember best about this session. After years of increases that made college all but unaffordable, we finally turned things around. I can’t blame our friends for offering their support now that they see how popular the idea has become, but it would have been nice if they had mentioned it before the fact.
Redefining victory. The final example comes from Gov. Inslee himself. The governor’s office sent a note to reporters last week claiming the budget deal has to be counted as a Democratic win because it increases state spending 13 percent. What a strange way to declare victory – hooray, we grew government? This note rehashes minor details of budget negotiations, amplifies points of little significance, and ignores the big picture. In the end, Democratic proposals for massive tax increases were defeated, the state lived within the revenue it had to spend, we cut tuition and we increased education spending to 47 percent of the budget – its biggest share since the 1980s.
There was never any doubt these were our goals, and the final budget deal took this shape. You could tell where we stood because we committed to this position in April by passing a full budget, both a spending bill and a revenue bill. It was unfortunate that the other side broke with tradition and did not. The fact that some people have to make convoluted arguments, stretch the truth and redefine their terms in order to claim the victory ought to tell you who really won. Not our side so much as the taxpayers of the state of Washington.
Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, is vice chair of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.