Let people choose whether payroll tax is right for them, Republicans say

Jul 10, 2023

OLYMPIA… Several of Washington’s Senate Republicans say the next time legislators are in session, they’ll try again to give workers an opportunity to opt out of the mandatory long-term care tax that began cutting into paychecks July 1.

“Workers around our state are looking at their pay stubs and saying ‘I didn’t ask for this new tax. How can I get out of it? Republicans think they should have that choice, with no strings attached,” said Senate Republican Leader John Braun.

The payroll tax is currently equal to $58 annually for every $10,000 in pay. It supports a government-run program called WA Cares, created by majority Democrats in 2019. The program offers a lifetime payout of no more than $36,500, subject to inflation, regardless of how long a worker pays into it – and in many cases, the benefits would be even less.

Late in 2021, with the unpopular tax set for collection starting in 2022, workers were given a window of time to seek an exemption from it, but only if they purchased their own long-term care coverage and provided proof to the state. The resulting controversy led Democratic legislators to delay the collection of the tax until mid-2023 and add four specific exemptions that are ongoing but still exclude most Washington workers.

While the details are still being ironed out, Braun said the policy Republicans will propose would allow workers to permanently opt out of participation in WA Cares, upon request. There would be no need for proof of other long-term coverage, and depending on when someone opts out, a refund of taxes he or she paid in may be available.

The idea of giving workers a choice about participating in the long-term care program has already gained support from other members of the Senate Republican Caucus.

“Young people who are just entering the workforce didn’t have the choice to opt out before. They deserve it now,” said Sen. Curtis King of Yakima, who is Republican leader on the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee. “People who move into our state and already have long-term care coverage also deserve a choice; they shouldn’t have to be in the position of making a second payment for the state-run program, which is probably not as good as what they already own.

“Then there are the people who never had to consider whether to seek an exemption year before last because they had already retired — but are now returning to the workforce because they need extra income to survive. Why should they be forced to pay into this? They have every reason to be aggravated.”

“Before the 2022 session began we heard Democrats talk about making reforms to this program. They spoke of the need to ‘ensure fairness’ and ‘do it well.’ Here we are, 18 months later, and they haven’t accomplished either,” said Sen. Chris Gildon of Puyallup, who is assistant operating-budget leader.

“The Democrats have twice rejected our proposals to repeal this program, so if we’re stuck with WA Cares, let’s at least try to make it work for the people of Washington by giving them the choice whether to leave or stay. If the coverage being offered is really superior to anything out there in the private market, the majority should have no fear that more workers would think about withdrawing – right?”

“Most Republicans voted last year for the bill that delayed the payroll tax collection until after our 2023 legislative session. I did so in part because the longer delay allowed more time to consider adjustments that might deal with the flaws in this program – one of the biggest of which is the lack of portability,” said Sen. Lynda Wilson, Republican leader on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

“But the Democrats did nothing this year to make the program more appealing, so all the delay did was push the collection of an unpopular tax past the 2022 general election. To me, the answer is to make this tax voluntary. If workers see value in this program, they can decide to participate. But it needs to be their choice.”