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Slow going in tax talks

Credit: René Mansi

Editor’s note: The content of this article was first reported on Public Radio Northwest News Network.

For several weeks now a coalition of labor, health care, education and environmental groups have been working on a tax-hike proposal for Washington state. But now three major members of that coalition have walked away from the table.

The Washington State Labor Council, Washington Federation of State Employees and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 are the three labor groups that in recent days parted ways with the coalition that’s been working behind-the-scenes to put a tax package on Washington’s ballot.

Tom Geiger is Communications Director for UFCW 21. He says his union left the fold because the proposals under discussion would further a state tax system that he believes burdens working families.

Geiger says his union tried to broaden the discussion to include proposals for longer-term structural changes to Washington’s tax structure. “One of the reasons why we got into this mess is because we have a fundamentally flawed tax system in the state of Washington,” says Geiger. But he says the coalition wasn’t interested in tackling that broader issue.

Geiger won’t go into specifics about what alternatives UFCW would support. But he says closing tax loopholes and looking for a way to tax high-income earners should be on the table. An income tax has long been the third rail of Washington politics, but there are certainly reformers — including Bill Gates Sr. — who have recently been re-upping their call for an tax on income (perhaps paired with a reduction in sales and property tax).

The UFCW’s frustration with the “coalition” seems to support what many in the legislature are hinting – that the leading contender for a tax hike package is a temporary increase in the state sales tax.

The Washington State Labor Council, an umbrella organization, says it left the coalition because its affiliates began bowing out and it wanted to show support for them. In an email, the Labor Council’s Kathy Cummings adds her group isn’t confident the tax effort will succeed.

Cummings also says the Labor Council is unhappy with how the 2009 Legislative session is progressing.

The relationship between labor and majority Democrats has been strained lately. Democratic leaders and Governor Chris Gregoire recently killed labor’s top priority bill — the so-called Worker Privacy Act — over a controversial email that seemed to tie the success of the bill to campaign contributions.

The three breakaway groups have not yet indicated whether they plan to pursue a separate tax proposal. Their departure could prove a major financial blow to the coalition when the time comes to mount a public campaign to pass a tax measure.

Meanwhile the remaining members of the tax coalition — including the Washington Education Association, SEIU and the Washington State Hospital Association — are currently preparing a second round of polling to get a better sense of what kinds of taxes the public might be open to and what programs voters would want to buy back with those taxes.

In response to the three groups pulling out, Cassie Sauer with the Hospital Association says: “I think it is worth keeping our eye on a longer-term issue, but to ignore the current crisis would be absolutely irresponsible and would cause incredible pain to thousands of people in Washington. I mean this is not minor pain, this is huge,” says Sauer.

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