Capital Views: Sentiments on half-cent sales tax turn again

Monday, March 31, 2003
DON JENKINS, Columbian staff writer

It's springtime in the capital, where a proposal's fortunes change as rapidly as the weather.

Take, for example, Rep. Bill Fromhold's idea to raise the sales tax by about a half-penny per $1 for the next two years.

In mid-December, the Vancouver Democrat forecast melting resistance as lawmakers saw the ramifications of balancing the budget solely by spending cuts.

By mid-March, however, Fromhold admitted that his idea hadn't "resonated."

But that was almost two weeks ago.

Since then, the budget deficit -- the difference between current spending policies and projected revenues for the next two years -- grew by more than $200 million to $2.6 billion.

Is a temporary sales tax hike now gaining support?

"Starting to," Fromhold said.

By protocol, the Democrat-controlled House should release its 2003-05 budget first. But the Democrats aren't ready, so Senate Republicans may go ahead and present their spending plan this week.

"I don't think there will be support for a sales tax (increase) with the first budget out," said Sen. Don Carlson, R-Hazel Dell.

But it will be only the first proposal, and Carlson said he wants to give state employees pay raises and avoid some cuts to programs that serve the disabled and poor.

"I just don't see how we can do it without a tax increase," said Carlson, who could be a key vote in a Senate with 25 Republicans and 24 Democrats.

Fromhold, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has steadfastly championed a sales tax hike as the fairest and simplest alternative to making state employees, schools and the disadvantaged bear a heavy burden of a budget imbalance.

He stresses that the Legislature must still cut spending by at least $1.5 billion, even if a 0.4 to 0.5 cent-per-dollar sales tax increase raises $700 million to $800 million. A sunset clause could guarantee repeal of the increase in two years.

Along with hiking the tax, lawmakers should re-establish spending limits and look at making the tax system fairer for business and the poor, Fromhold said.

Democratic Gov. Gary Locke has repeatedly opposed any general tax increase, appearing at times to be a source of inspiration for leaders of the Republican-led Senate.

Some House Democrats, a "small element," says Fromhold, also are in the no-tax-increase camp.

Meanwhile, the new-revenue camp has two subgroups: The ones who look toward "sin taxes," and the ones who look toward a sales tax increase and don't want to "mess around with sin," Fromhold said.

In capital slang, sins include alcohol, gambling, tobacco and, for mild sinners, soda pop.

"Behind every sin you want to tax is an army of four or five interest groups," Fromhold said.

Likewise for small-scale tax increases, such as extending the sales tax to a haircut or a newspaper, or for eliminating some of the 431 tax exemptions in place.

"When you push those buttons, you're going to get a load of opposition," Fromhold said.

Instant run-off voting, HB 1390, 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Cherberg Building, Hearing Room 3: Public hearing on bill introduced by Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, and passed by the House that would would allow selected cities, including Vancouver, to use instant run-off voting to elect city council members. Senate Government Operations and Elections.

DON JENKINS reports on the Legislature and state government. He can be reached in The Columbian's Olympia bureau at 360-586-2437 or via e-mail at


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