Opinion

I-960’s coffin lamentably nailed shut

The final nail in the coffin of tax-increase-limitation Initiative 960 was driven home Wednesday night after two more hours of tightly scheduled debate in the Washington State House of Representatives.

The inevitable outcome of Engrossed Senate Substitution Bill 6130, the measure to suspend I-960, was never in doubt.

Even the final vote numbers were known over 24 hours in advance.

Still, House members went through the motions during nearly two hours of debate.

When Speaker Pro-Tem Bill Morris, D-Guemes Island, gaveled the House to order at just after 8 p.m., it was like herding cats.

Most Democrats acted lackadaisically, as if they didn’t care.

It was even necessary to count the number of legislators on the floor to determine if they had a quorum.

But as the two-hour debate time wore on, passions were raised, and, for the first time since the House took up the bill on Saturday, consistently strong and forceful speeches were made by those on both sides of the issue.

Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City, sharply criticized the argument that tax increases were needed to fully fund education.

“Fund it first,” he said. “If we have to raise taxes, it’s not to fund education, but what comes after education. We have not made tough choices — we have made choices in a framework we’re comfortable in.”

Anderson said the courts have been saying for 30 years that the Legislature needs to fund education, yet the Legislature has been ignoring the courts for the same 30 years.

Rep. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, said that he was excited to support ESSB 6130 because it would give the Legislature an opportunity to restructure the tax system and make it fair.

He said that the middle class voted for I-960 out of frustration – they had had enough. Now the middle class is being eroded by the shift of the tax burden from the rich to them.

This growing divide between the middle class and the wealthy is at the root of current troubles, he said.

Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, let hard numbers do much of his talking.

State revenue had grown 31 percent since 2004, while growth in the Consumer Price Index had been 16 percent during the same period, he said.

State government took in twice the increase in the cost of living during that period, he said.

Armstrong said that there was a hard divide in the House, and that the vote to suspend I-960 exemplified it.

There is a difference between the two parties, and this was it, he said.

He said that the governor was in the wings with a $760 million list of tax increases waiting for the tax-limitation provisions of I-960 to be suspended.

Rep. Geoff Simpson, D-Covington, said that the easy thing to do would be to not raise taxes.

He said the previous all-cuts budget resulted in dangerous criminals being released from supervision by the Department of Corrections.

The current budget is $1 billion smaller than the last biennium, he said.

“Reducing the size of state government is harmful to our economy,” he said.

Rep. Dave Quall, D-Mt. Vernon, said school children visit him in his office in the Legislature, and they must be helped with new revenue.

“We are not a highly taxed state,” he said.

When it comes to complaining about high taxes, “We have overplayed our hand,” he said.

One of the last speakers, Rep. Bill Hinkle, R-Cle Elum, said that suspending I-960 will result in increased taxes to support a bureaucracy that is not working.

“People are demanding that we change,” he said. He then fired perhaps the strongest rhetorical shot across the Democrat’s political bow when he outlined what he said were probable negative political consequences to many in the Legislature who favored suspending I-960 and subsequent tax increases.

“I’m not going over the cliff with you, Mr. Speaker,” Hinkle said.

On that note, the House voted.

As predicted, the final vote on ESSB 6130 to suspend I-960 was 51 in favor and 47 opposed.

In the gallery were many spectators who were there because of the issue.

When the result was gaveled as being official, angry and often expletive-laden comments came from most of them.

They were not happy.

Scott St. Clair is Seattle-based freelance journalist.

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