The Democrats’ tax package was poll-tested

Democrats in Olympia end up taxing Joe Six-Pack, since they couldn't find other taxes to raise that poll well or could survive Tim Eyman's initiatives.
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The taxman cometh for Budweiser drinkers.

Democrats in Olympia end up taxing Joe Six-Pack, since they couldn't find other taxes to raise that poll well or could survive Tim Eyman's initiatives.

I had a pretty typical Northwest weekend. Bought a latte, contemplated how to spend my REI dividend, and served a local microbrew at a gathering of friends. In a few months, when the Democrats'ꀙ new tax hikes kick in, I won'ꀙt pay a penny more for those 'ꀜdiscretionary purchases.'ꀝ My Starbucks drink, REI fleece, and Fish Tale Ale will cost the same.

Not true if you'ꀙre the guy who stops off at the convenience store on a Friday night for a half-rack of Budweiser, a six-pack of Coke for the kids, a pack of cigarettes (tough habit to break), a pack of gum, and a couple of candy bars. That guy will easily spend $1.75 more in taxes, thanks to a tax package some call the "7-Eleven tax."

Have majority Democrats in Washington declared class warfare with the nickel-and-dime portion of their nearly $800 million tax package? Was that intentional? No. But they'ꀙve certainly armed Republicans with a populist message for the blue-collar set just in time for campaign season.

The alternative would have been to make everyone pay via an across-the-board sales tax increase. That'ꀙs the approach Senate Democrats clung to until the bitter end. But bottom line: the sales tax polls poorly. That'ꀙs, at least in part, why House Democrats refused to go along with the Senate'ꀙs proposal for a temporary sales tax increase of between one-tenth and three-tenths of a penny. Speaker of the House Frank Chopp "really resisted doing that,'ꀝ says House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam.

Instead, Democrats, in the waning days of a 30-day special session, settled on a hodge-podge of taxes that individually poll better. Like the beer tax, which Kessler told TVW polled at 62 percent. Democrats tailored the tax to exempt micro-brews to protect in-state brewers.

Another key consideration, according to Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, was developing a menu of tax hikes that wouldn'ꀙt be overturned by citizen initiative. He notes extending the sales tax to bottled water and candy polled above 50 percent. 'ꀜOur package was crafted with the November ballot in mind,'ꀝ says Dunshee. 'ꀜWe always look at [the question]: Is it sustainable on the ballot?'ꀝ

Since Democrats put 'ꀜemergency clauses'ꀝ on the taxes, they'ꀙre not vulnerable to a voter referendum, which takes fewer signatures to qualify. But that didn'ꀙt stop tax foe Tim Eyman last week from filing a slew of initiatives to overturn the taxes. Eyman says he'ꀙs testing public opinion to see which of the taxes create the most heartburn before he decides whether to mount a real tax-repeal signature-gathering effort.

The bigger threat, it would seem, is the one legislative Democrats themselves face at the polls this November. Kessler, who'ꀙs retiring for health reasons, doesn'ꀙt think the Democrats will lose their majorities, as happened in 1994. 'ꀜThere won'ꀙt be a sea-change,'ꀝ Kessler predicts, adding in an obvious understatement: 'ꀜBut we'ꀙll lose a few seats, I'ꀙm sure.'ꀝ

The irony is swing district Democrats who voted 'ꀜno'ꀝ on the tax package — and there are several of them in both chambers — are the ones who are most likely to pay the price for the taxes that were raised.

As you would imagine, minority Republicans are as optimistic as they'ꀙve been in years. Carefully playing the expectations game, they agree with Kessler that a GOP takeover of the legislature is unlikely. 'ꀜI'ꀙm not predicting [winning the] majority,'ꀝ says Kevin Carns, Executive Director of the House Republican Organizational Committee. 'ꀜBut we're going to make some pretty solid gains this year.'ꀝ

Senate Republicans are more bullish. 'ꀜPeople have talked about my November smile,'ꀝ admits Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla. 'ꀜIf [we don'ꀙt get] the majority, we'ꀙre anxious to be closer so we can start talking about fiscal responsibility.'ꀝ

Hewitt'ꀙs already anticipating another several-billion-dollar budget shortfall in the next biennium. Republicans are eager to hit the campaign trail and hammer Democrats for raising taxes and for failing to provide a longer-term solution to the state'ꀙs fiscal crisis.


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