Special-interest groups are responding to the budget Washington state lawmakers recently passed, and their rhetoric sounds like the same thing we hear any time anyone proposes making long-overdue changes to our state tax code. They’re busy spinning yarns about how the sky is falling, but the truth is that this budget will improve our tax code and strengthen our communities.
The Legislature took some modest but important steps this year to enact progressive new revenue that will be good for all of us. These changes will create much-needed investments in the upcoming two-year budget in things like public schools, mental health services and protecting our environment.
In addition to closing a handful of unnecessary, outdated and costly tax breaks, legislators in Olympia changed our real estate excise taxes so that a property selling for more than $1.5 million isn’t taxed at the same rate as homes selling for less than $500,000. They also increased the business and occupation (B&O) tax rate for large, out-of-state banks. That’s right, taxes went up for large banks, people selling high-value properties, and wealthy people and companies.
For most of us, these changes to our tax code won’t make any difference in what we pay, or our taxes will actually go down. Anyone selling residential or commercial property in Washington for less than $500,000 will pay a reduced rate. And the Legislature approved an important modernization of the property-tax code that will allow more seniors to qualify for a property-tax exemption.
We’ll all benefit from the increased investments that the Legislature made this year in public schools and other services that support a thriving Washington. It’s been proved time and time again that people choose where to live based on factors like the strength of their communities. Thriving communities are only possible when everyone is pitching in to pay their share.
This calls into question why some groups are working so hard to spread the message that these reforms aren’t good for our state. Think about it — when someone is trying to convince you that you should oppose small changes to our tax code that only impact out-of-state banks or wealthy people and companies selling real estate worth more than $1.5 million, you have to ask who they’re really trying to protect.
For far too long, the wealthiest Washingtonians and multibillion-dollar corporations have been getting away with not pitching in their fair share. Thanks in part to unnecessary tax breaks for the ultrawealthy and our state’s overreliance on regressive taxes like sales tax, people with low and moderate incomes pay up to six times more in taxes as a share of income than the wealthiest 1%. That’s completely upside-down.
These small tax reforms in our budget are necessary first steps to fix a tax code that is in desperate need of repair.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the Legislature went far enough this year in the changes they made to our tax code. Washington still has the most regressive tax code in the nation, where people with low wages pay a higher share of their incomes to support the public programs that benefit us all — like higher ed, public health and parks.
Failing to close the tax break on capital gains for a small group of the wealthiest Washingtonians was a missed opportunity to make our tax code more equitable and to invest in things like the Working Families Tax Credit — which would have provided an income boost to about a million low- and moderate-income Washingtonians who are struggling with our state’s skyrocketing cost of living.
So yes, there’s more work to be done, but let’s applaud the Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee for approving the changes they did make. Let’s also ignore the tired rhetoric and keep working to implement more reforms. We must create a tax code that reflects our values as Washingtonians and works better for all of us.