A state income tax has long been the Holy Grail for many progressives, but statewide plans to institute one have been rejected time and time again. As Seattle considers going it alone, we dig into the legal challenges the city plan could face.

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A state income tax has long been the Holy Grail for many Democrats and progressives, who are outraged that Washington’s sales-tax dependent tax code effectively taxes poorer residents at much higher rates than the rich.

But statewide income-tax plans have been rejected time and time again, most recently in 2010. Now Seattle is going it alone, considering a proposal to impose a city-only income tax of 2 percent on income over $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for couples filing jointly. The plan would raise about $125 million annually.

In a city determined to resist Donald Trump and Republicans, the income-tax plan seems a slam dunk to pass. But it’s likely to be tied up in court challenges for months or years after that. So is it a wise idea? Or even legal?

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On Episode 43 of The Overcast, reporters Dan Beekman and Jim Brunner dive into the wonky details with two well-versed experts. As part of an ongoing partnership, this week’s session was recorded at the Seattle studios of 88.5 FM KNKX with public radio reporter Simone Alicea.

Joining the podcast in-studio is John Burbank of the Economic Opportunity Institute, who supports the measure and argues it is Seattle’s moral duty to tread where the state has feared to go.

“We know that we have an incredibly inequitable and unfair tax structure where working class people pay about 4 times as much of their income as people at the top,” he argues.

Like other income tax proponents, Burbank welcomes the chance to use the Seattle measure to challenge a 1930s state Supreme Court ruling which struck down a voter-approved income tax.

But Jason Mercier, of the Washington Policy Center, who joins this week’s podcast by phone, says the legal and constitutional obstacles to a state income tax are serious – notwithstanding the political wishes of Seattle Democrats.

“As all powerful as the (Seattle) City Council may be, they do not have the power to change the state constitution,” Mercier says. And aside from the constitutional problem, there is a flat-out ban on local income taxes, he says. It’s not clear whether modern courts would change their minds on those issues.

There’s much more to the debate, as the gang looks at the legal questions, the historical context and the politics of an issue that will be in the news for the coming months and years. Listen in and offer your feedback.

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