Soak the Rich, Keep the Change

Soak the Rich, Keep the Change

By Jeremy Lott - March 13, 2010

Do Washington state Democrats have a death wish? That's the question many locals must be asking after the Democrat-controlled Senate held hearings last Thursday, with little notice, packed with supporters for a new bill that would impose a statewide income tax.

They tried to sell the proposal as a populist measure. The tax would only apply to wealthy earners and it would allow the state government to reduce the sales tax. By bringing the bill up so late in the legislative session - business is supposed to be completed by this Thursday - the Dems were not seriously trying to pass the bill. So why bring it up at all?

There are theories. Anti-tax activist Tim Eyman wrote on the conservative Sound Politics blog that the plan must be to "propose lots of tax and fee increases, tons of them, then float a state income tax bill, get everyone fired up, then pull back, drop the income tax proposal, and then pass the other tax and fee increase bills" and let voters "breathe a sigh of relief because we 'beat back' the income tax." And he's got half a point here. The state House has already voted to hike taxes and fees by some $850 million to help close the state's $2.8 billion budget gap.

Vincent Buys, a Republican construction contractor in Everson, Washington who is making his first run for public office against state House Ways and Means Committee chairwoman Kelli Linville is appalled but not shocked. He says that the message that Democrats are trying to sell voters is "Let's soak the rich." He doubts it will work.

Buys points out that Evergreen state residents have been historically hostile to an income tax, even though they are constantly reminded that the high sales tax is "regressive." "We realize it's a bad idea," he said of a new state income tax. "We're already getting soaked from the federal government on the income tax." And there is no guarantee that what starts out as a tax on high earners would stay that way.

This seemingly local issue could have national repercussions. One Senate seat and the state's nine House seats are up for grabs in November, and the state has shown volatile swings in the past. Before the 1994 elections, the state had one Republican representative and eight Democrats. Voters ushered in a delegation that was 7-2 Republican. They turned sitting House Speaker Tom Foley out of office and elected Republican populist Linda Smith with a hastily organized write-in campaign.

Over the next 15 years, the Democrats chipped away at those gains. The current House delegation is 6-3 Democrats. This year, the Cook Political Report rates four of the state's districts as "Solid D," one as "Likely D," and one a "toss up," for a Republican gain of one or two seats at most. But anger at both local and national Democrats could change that. It's probably more accurate to say that four seats are in play and Katy bar the door if old Democratic stalwarts Norm Dicks or Jim McDermott decide to retire.

On the Senate side, Patty Murray polls well against all would-be Republican challengers, save one, and he's trying to talk himself into running. The Hotline reported that National Republican Senate Committee chairman John Cornyn had talked with two-time gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi about getting into the race versus Murray.

Rossi claimed that he was reluctant to take the plunge but that he is getting calls from around the country encouraging him to go for it. He said that Washington state "is in need of help, and if something doesn't change up there [in Washington, D.C.], there might not be much of a path left." He called Murray "an appropriator" and thus "one of those responsible for spending America into bankruptcy."

Whether or not Rossi decides to run for it, his response is typical of a lot of the independents that decide the balance of power in Washington state elections. They have proved willing to give Democrats power in the past but now things have gone wrong and they're looking for somebody to blame. Proposing a new income tax isn't likely to put them in a better frame of mind.

Jeremy Lott is an editor for RealClearPolitics and author of The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.

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