Why the Sales Tax Debate Erupts in Washington State

Nov. 22, 2011

The buzz in Seattle and other Washington locales is over another attempt to raise taxes.  Yes, Gov. Chris Gregoire wants to raise $500 million via a temporary half-cent increase in the state portion of the sales tax to offset continued budget deficits to prevent more state government cuts in spending.

Either the Legislature could pass the increase providing it passes with a two-thirds majority in an upcoming special session. If it can’t, the Legislature can pass a referendum bill by the end of this year for voter approval.

Gov. Gregoire’s request also threatens to risk relations with Oregon and neighbors by repealing their sales tax exemption when traveling and shopping in Washington state.

Washington’s sales tax debate request follows four developments:

  1. Failure by public officials to practice good stewardship of existing revenue.
  2. Lack of jobs – nearly a double-digit unemployment rate.
  3. Businesses are struggling.
  4. Washington’s two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases – demanded by voters in four referendums.

No. 1 – the sales tax increase request is not a surprise to watchdogs in the wake of years of overspending. For years, analysts have been warning about public policies, including in this space as long as two-and-a-half years ago when this portal was launched (Analysis: Steps for Economic Success in Washington State).

Part of the problem stems from furtive policymakers and the failure to answer the right questions: Why Not Transparency for Good, Open Government in Washington State?

No. 2 – 314,700 people are unemployed in Washington state out of the 3.5 million-person workforce. In October, 4,600 jobs were created in government, education, health services, manufacturing and wholesale trade.

No. 3 – With many of the new jobs in government and education, it underscores the point about the state’s business climate. The tech sector in Seattle is doing well. But ask any business owner or manager if their companies are better off now than they were in 2006 before the recession.

No. 4 – It seems unlikely the Legislature will be able to pass such an increase, but will authorized a vote of the people thanks to I-1053, which was passed last year after the Legislature circumvented the three previous voter-approved referendums (I-1053: Critical to Washington State Businesses and Workers).

The Secretary of State’s timeline for the sales tax debate:

  • Dec. 30 – Last day for Legislature to pass tax referendum bill for March 13 election
  • February 10 – Military and overseas ballots mailed for March election
  • February 21 – Mailing of voters’ pamphlets begins for March 13 election
  • February 24 – Regular ballots mailed for March 13 election
  • March 13 – Election Day

“There will be plenty of time to debate the merits of the Governor’s tax proposal but one thing isn’t open for debate, I-1053 is working exactly the way voters intended by providing them the opportunity to ultimately decide this important question,” writes Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center.

He offers this proviso:

“To help ensure this opportunity continues in the future, if lawmakers are going to send voters a proposed tax referendum they should also put a constitutional amendment enforcing the four-time voter approved two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases on the ballot,” he writes.

“This would provide the public and businesses with predictability about whether this tax protection will exist from year to year and clarify whether or not the four-time approval of the voters for this policy was a fluke or actually reflects their consistent and ongoing desire for lawmakers to build a strong public consensus on the need for any proposed tax increase,” he explains.

Agreed – tax increases would be unnecessary if the public officials worked to improve the business climate and performed to voter expectations. Tax increases are never temporary in Washington and the economic environment isn’t improving.

From the Coach’s Corner, Washington state has budget woes and high unemployment because legislators don’t ask the right questions, such as What Do Small Business Owners Need from Washington State Policymakers?

“Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.”

-Will Rogers


Author Terry Corbell has written innumerable online business-enhancement articles, and is a business-performance consultant and profit professional. Click here to see his management services. For a complimentary chat about your business situation or to schedule him as a speaker, consultant or author, please contact Terry.

Seattle business consultant Terry Corbell provides high-performance management services and strategies.