Straight talk on the budget

For political linguists, Gov. Jay Inslee is a gift from God. One part green-tech wunderkind, two parts Yogi Berra.

In his Thursday press conference, Inslee was asked about extending a surcharge in the business and occupation tax and continuing a beer tax, both set to expire in June. Inslee said that it might be necessary, but hopefully not. And if it is necessary, extensions still don’t meet the technical definition of a tax increase. Advocating a tax increase would break a read-my-lips no-taxes promise — a promise that, in hindsight, was expedient and ill-considered.

“I do not believe we would be increasing taxes if we extend the existing tax rates in that regard,” Inslee said. “And the reason I believe that is it’s true. We would not be increasing taxes for consumers in that regard. That’s something that as an economics major from the University of Washington is pretty clear to me and I think people will come to understand that over time.”

English majors can practice diagramming the governor’s responses. Consider the following: “What I am saying is that those proposals, should we, in the fullness of time, conclude they’re necessary for satisfying the McCleary decision or having a balanced budget and I have not made that decision yet.”

Pretzeling language is the realm of politicos and diplomats. On a question as politically sensitive as taxes, however, rhetorical switchbacks drain all the fun. Straight talk is crucial.

Jason Mercier, the director of government reform for the Washington Policy Center, told The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield, “Under state law, breaking the promise to sunset those temporary tax increases would qualify as a tax increase and trigger the protections of the state’s supermajority for taxes law.”

Enough hair-splitting. Let’s call it a tax increase. A compelling argument can be made that these (insert your definition here) may be essential to pay for K-12 education as mandated by the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision. Inslee should also revisit the hundreds of tax breaks that tap state coffers, a long-overdue reform that spells a tax increase for those benefitting from existing loopholes. Washington is freighted with a regressive, jerry-rigged tax system that punishes poor families and is too sales-tax-dependent. Say it loud, say it proud: real tax reform.

Inslee is a committed public servant, and we agree with his extension position. Rhetorical contortions are a distraction, however, fueling cynicism. Disruptive change means just that. Less dancing, more hard-truth telling.

For now, as the governor made foggy a la Yogi Berra, when you get to a fork in the tax road, take it.

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