Righting the imbalance of our state's tax system

Years ago there was a comic strip named “Pogo.” One of the most insightful strips was a distilled discussion of human foibles, in which Pogo announced, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

When it comes to the national debate over the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent, we may not like the growing chasm between corporate elites and the rest of us — but we’ve sure made it easy for them to keep it that way.

Take our own state. It will become $25 billion wealthier over the next two years. (That’s how much our economy will grow.) And yet for some reason, we can’t seem to find enough funding to keep up with public priorities. So we will likely see annual tuition at Everett Community College break the $4,000 mark, and the University of Washington will probably charge more than $12,000. Class sizes in elementary school will top 30 kids or more. More people will be kicked off of Basic Health, right at the time when even more low-wage working people need health insurance.

Because of our over-reliance on the sales tax, we are hurting the vast majority of middle class and low-income families, and we are leaving a lot of money on the wealthy’s already overflowing table of riches.

How did we get here? In 2010, the people approved Initiative 1053, written and sponsored by Snohomish County’s own Tim Eyman, and voted into place by nearly a two-thirds margin statewide. By requiring a two-thirds vote for revenue increases, voters ended majority rule in the Legislature, making it possible for a minority of legislators to block the closure of tax loopholes or the implementation of taxes on the wealthy to fund public services.

By tying the hands of the Legislature, we prevent them from even meeting the state’s paramount duty to fund basic education for all children. But it would be nice to see some leadership anyway. Why not attempt to close corporate tax loopholes, and in so doing ensure that at least some corporate profits stay here in Washington (rather than be stashed away overseas) and be put to good use educating our kids?

The attempt to move such a bill through the House and Senate would require our elected officials to show their true stripes. Are they willing to tax out-of-state banks to fund basic health? Are they willing to close the Microsoft royalty loophole to fund higher education?

Legislators might not succeed in mustering the mandated two-thirds majority to close these loopholes. They might not even get the simple majority necessary to put this question to the people in a referendum. But they would enable the people to judge for themselves: Who is working for the citizens of our state and who is working for the out-of-state banks and the wealthiest corporations in the world?

There’s a reason such legislative behavior would be atypical. Legislators are supposed to act in the best interests of the people. But they are faced every day with a bevy of lobbyists for these banks and corporations. They are friendly, sincere and determined. They hold a lot of sway in Olympia, with both Republicans and Democrats. And they hold a lot of sway in campaign financing. So they pack fear into legislative deliberations, fear that overcomes decision-making for the greater good.

The upshot: While we have a proliferation of wealth in our state — the Seattle metropolitan area alone has almost 1,000 individuals with at least $35 million each in wealth — we also have a proliferation of poverty and a cratering of middle class hopes and dreams.

We built a cage for our legislators that confounds our own expectations. We have met the enemy, and he is us. But unlike Pogo, we have the ability to re-think our previous decisions. Legislators may hide behind Initiative 1053, but we are hiding behind our legislators. It is time for us to come out from the shadows and rebuild our future. No one else will.

If we shirk from taxing the most privileged residents of our state — the wealthiest and most powerful corporations residing here — then we’ll have to content ourselves with patching and filling our way to a low-road economy and an unpromising future for our parents, our kids and ourselves.

(originally published at HeraldNet)

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