Initiative to prohibit income taxes in Washington has its day in Olympia

Members of Washington’s House Finance and Senate Ways and Means committees listen to public testimony on Tuesday, Feb. 27 during a hearing on Initiative 2111, which calls for prohibiting state and local income taxes in Washington. (Bill Lucia / Washington State Standard)

In a packed hearing room on Tuesday, Washington lawmakers heard loud and clear from members of the public that many do not want an income tax in their state, county, or city.

Nearly 200 people signed up to have their voices heard and another 6,000 signed in either for or against a citizen-backed initiative that would prohibit state and local governments from imposing a tax on personal income. Almost 90% of those signed in were in favor of the initiative.

“This initiative is designed to do one thing: codify in law the state’s longstanding tradition of not having an income tax,” initiative sponsor Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, told the committee.

Tuesday’s public hearing is the first of three on Walsh-introduced initiatives that, if not approved by the Legislature, could make their way to the ballot this November. Initiatives concerning police vehicle pursuits and parents’ voices in the education of their children in public schools will both get hearings on Wednesday.

All three initiatives are scheduled for committee votes on Friday.

The Washington Supreme Court has long ruled that a statewide graduated income tax in Washington is unconstitutional and, on 11 separate occasions, Washington voters have shot down ballot measures that could have allowed the state to adopt one, according to the Secretary of State.

At Tuesday’s hearing, supporters of the initiative said that workers in Washington want assurance that the state will continue to follow the will of the voters and not enact an income tax in the future.

Opponents, however, argued that the measure is unnecessary since Washington has never had an income tax. State lawmakers are not currently considering any legislation to impose one. Fiscal analyses of the initiative show that it would not affect any tax policies now in law.

“What we need is public investments to lift people up and fund our basic safety net infrastructure,” Marcy Bowers, of the Statewide Poverty Action Network, said. “What we don’t need is to spend time debating proposals like this that are so vaguely worded that they don’t actually do anything.”

Although they acknowledged that the initiative would not affect any laws now, supporters of it said voters want to know that an income tax won’t happen in the future.

Steve Gordon, of Concerned Taxpayers of Washington, said taxpayers are getting frustrated with lawmakers.

“Again and again, the response from Olympia has been, ‘If we just had more tax dollars this time, we can fix it,’” Gordon said. “Taxpayers are waking up. This lack of trust is why this initiative is necessary.”

Supporters of the initiative also argued that not having an income tax attracts businesses and workers to Washington.

Braden Sisk, a signature gatherer for the Let’s Go Washington, the group backing the six initiatives, said part of the bargain of living in Washington is that there is no income tax. 

But opponents of the measure said Washington’s lack of an income tax gives it one of the most regressive tax codes in the nation, meaning the tax burden is heavier for lower earners.

Because Washington relies so much on sales taxes, which are the same rate for everyone regardless of income, lower-income taxpayers often pay a greater share of their income in taxes than high-earners.

Eliminating the possibility of an income tax in Washington could hamstring the state’s ability to improve the state’s tax code in the future, said Dylan Grundman O’Neill, an analyst with the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy.

“Our tax code is upside down and broken,” said Charles Mayer, at the Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility. “We need more tools to fix this problem, not fewer.”

Initiatives to the Legislature

In Washington, citizens can gather signatures on a measure to send to voters on the ballot or to the Legislature to enact into law.

If an initiative sent to the Legislature is certified, with the secretary of state verifying it has enough people signed on in support, the Legislature has three options:

They can adopt the initiative into law as proposed.
They can reject the initiative, sending it to the ballot for voters to decide.
Or they can propose an alternative measure to send to voters alongside the original.

The group Let’s Go Washington, with financial support from investor Brian Heywood, backed six citizen initiatives submitted to the Legislature this year.

Initiatives to repeal the state’s new capital gains tax, erase its carbon market and make it easier for workers to opt out of Washington’s new long-term care insurance program are on track to go to voters this fall.

by Laurel Demkovich, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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