Politics & Government

Why Republican lawmakers are pushing for votes on Democratic governor’s tax raises

Legislative Building at the state Capitol in Olympia is shown as rain falls on the sundial in 2014.
Legislative Building at the state Capitol in Olympia is shown as rain falls on the sundial in 2014. Associated Press

Washington’s GOP-led state Senate might hold floor votes this week on more than $5 billion in new taxes proposed by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, despite having no intent of approving them.

Republican leadership has consistently opposed the governor’s taxes, in part claiming they’re unnecessarily expensive. But they have a reason for advancing the taxes to the floor: forcing Democrats to vote on them.

The move is part of an ongoing battle over how to comply with the state Supreme Court’s McCleary education ruling. In the McCleary case, the high court ruled the state is overreliant on local levies to pay for basic education in K-12 schools.

While Democrats who control the House have passed a measure that aims to fix the way the state pays for education, they haven’t proposed any taxes they say are needed to pay for it. Their plan is estimated to cost about $7.6 billion over the next four years.

Republicans say they’re trying to figure out which taxes lawmakers on the other side of the aisle actually support. Leading Democrats say votes on the taxes would be a political gambit and a waste of time since Republicans will vote down the taxes anyway.

“We can’t wait another month for negotiating to start,” said Senate Republican Caucus Chairwoman Randi Becker, who lives in Eatonville. If the tax bills are pulled to the floor, Becker said, “it would be very interesting to know how many people will support.”

The new taxes in Inslee’s plan — about $5.5 billion over two years — would mainly go toward K-12 education. About half of the tax revenue would come from new taxes on capital gains and carbon emissions.

Much of the rest comes from $2.3 billion dollars over next two years by increasing the business and occupation tax for service businesses from 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent.

In total, about $4.4 billion of the new taxes would go into the state’s two-year operating budget. About $1.1 billion would pay for capital construction projects.

In comparison, Republican leaders in the Senate have proposed meeting McCleary with a new statewide property tax to replace the local tax levies.

Their education plan is estimated to cost about $6.9 billion in the next four years and relies on $800 million a year in unspecified savings. Republicans have said they can find the money in the state’s existing budget.

State Sen. Sharon Nelson, the Democratic leader from Maury Island, said she was still working out how Senate Democrats might vote on Inslee’s taxes if they reach the floor.

But she said voting on the tax legislation requested by Inslee is pointless before Democrats agree to back his proposals, or negotiate with Republicans over what a joint plan might be.

“We’re more than willing to take a look at revenue options when we know exactly what we are going to be funding,” Nelson said. “And this is a stunt — it’s a stunt to try and do political theater.”

Nelson said the GOP might paint “no” votes as opposition to those specific taxes, she said, while Democrats might vote against the bills because there is no McCleary agreement yet.

New taxes on capital gains, carbon emissions and real property are some options for new money on the table, Nelson said.

Nelson also hit back at the GOP, noting that Republicans have yet to release where they would find the $800 million a year to complete their plan.

“If they’re going to have deep cuts they need to show us what those are, too,” she said.

Republican John Braun, the lead budget writer in the Senate, said in a statement Friday that a vote on Inslee’s taxes would showcase where Democrats stand on those taxes — a necessary starting point in McCleary negotiations, he said.

“The governor and legislative Democrats consistently call for new taxes on Washington residents and employers, but it remains unclear whether or not they fully support the idea,” said Braun, of Centralia.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein