House Democrats approve tax package to finance school upgrades

Democrats push through revenue hikes but 5 party members in swing districts vote with Republicans.
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Democrats push through revenue hikes but 5 party members in swing districts vote with Republicans.

Washington House Democrats have their $1.16 billion education-funding package lined up, approving it 50-47 Wednesday.

Wednesday's House vote covered $900 million for 2013-2015 from a combination of extending a soon-to-expire business-and-occupation tax on service firms and repealing nine tax exemptions. Days ago, the Democratic-controlled House approved repealing two additional exemptions to raise another $269 million for the biennium.

The highest-profile tax exemptions earmarked for repeal are on bottled water, on out-of-state residents not paying sales tax, and on recycled extracted fuel at five oil refineries.

This $1.16 billion is to pay for the 2013-2015 startup work to improve basic education in Washington in response to a state Supreme Court ruling requiring a massive amount of work by 2018. This money is part of the House's proposed $34. 33 billion operating budget for 2013-2015.The Republican-oriented Senate proposes a $33.21 billion operating budget, including $1 billion for the court-mandated basic education work. Unlike the House version, the Senate budget does not close tax exemptions nor extend a B&O tax hike. The Senate version would cut social and health services dramatically more than the House Democrats' plan.

In Wednesday's debate, Democrats pushed education needs requiring more money, while Republicans pushed jobs and business implications from additional taxes.

"I'm concerned this tax package will harm (economic) recovery. ... Children deserve education. They can get that education without this bill," said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama.

Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, said: "The best thing you can do for kids at risk is to make sure they're not at risk, and that is to make sure their parents have jobs."

Rep. Elizabeth Scott, R-Monroe, said: "We as a legislative body get to define 'basic education.' ... We keep stretching the definition of 'basic education.' ... We need to redefine 'basic education.' "

On the Democratic side, legislators argued that education should take priority over tax exemptions, and that a good education system attracts new businesses.

"The single most important infrastructure in this state is education. ... At the end of the day, the best economic tool we have is educated Washingtonians," said Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland.

Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, contended that the Republicans' school funding approach is too outdated to meet today's needs. "We're trying to fund a 21st century state (school system) with last century's revenue structure," he said.

Ultimately, five Democrats joined all the Republicans to be on the losing side of the 50-47 vote to pass the bill. Those five were Reps. Monica Stonier of Vancouver, Larry Seaquist of Gig Harbor, Christopher Hurst of Enumclaw, Kathy Haigh of Shelton and Dawn Morrell of Puyallup. All five are in potential swing districts in the next elections.

Washington has 640 tax exemptions worth tens of billions of dollars per biennium.

Republicans unsuccessfully tried to get Democrats to take Wednesday's repeal of nine exemptions and extension of the B&O tax to a public ballot in November. Republicans argued that the Democrats did not have the nerve to take the package to a public ballot. Democrats countered that it is the Legislature's duty to hammer together budgets, which includes tax measures.

Also chief Democratic budget writer Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, and Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, cited an opinion from Kristen Fraser, the House Appropriations Committee counsel and Seattle University constitutional law professor, that tax bills, budget bills and other budget-related legislation are exempt from voter referendums under the Washington Constitution. Republicans did not reply to that argument when Pedersen brought it up during the floor debate.

The Senate's 23-Republican-two-Democrat Majority Coalition Caucus and the House Democrats have not yet seriously begun their compromise budget talks. The Legislature's 105-day regular session ends Sunday, with a 30-day special session extremely likely to occur.

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8