Where leaders stand on sales tax

OLYMPIA — Snohomish County lawmakers are united in their distaste for raising the sales tax to pay for government programs.

They disagreed Tuesday on whether the proposed three-tenths of a penny hike should be nixed now or put on the ballot for voters to decide this fall.

Republicans are unanimously opposed while Democrats are divided among those who want to do it, those who don’t and those who are still unsure.

“I will give the voters the chance to make the decision,” said Rep. Al O’Brien, D-Mountlake Terrace. “Right now a lot of services will be cut in the next budget. Let’s see if the citizens want to support these services or not.”

Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, offered the opposite view.

“You cannot justify in these economic times going to the people and asking for more money,” she said. “People should be angry that our most vulnerable are being used to convince people to support a tax measure for programs this Legislature should be funding as our highest priority.”

Tuesday morning, the tax referendum cleared its first political hurdle when the House Health and Human Services Committee approved it on an 8-7 vote.

The proposed measure would increase the sales tax by three cents on each $10 of taxable purchases. It would take effect Jan. 1, and last three years.

It would generate an estimated $1 billion. A portion is for rebates to low-income families eligible for a federal earned income tax credit.

Most of the money would go to hospitals, nursing homes, mental health providers, public health clinics and the state-subsidized medical care program for the poor known as the Basic Health Plan.

These services face cuts in funding as the Legislature must pare $4 billion out of its projected state spending through mid-2011 because of budget shortfall.

After Tuesday’s committee action, the legislation’s next stop could be a House vote.

Democratic leaders, whose party hold the majority and will determine the outcome, are not saying when it will come up. There is opposition in the caucus.

“I’m inclined to say no,” said Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, one of the caucus veterans. “The services it will fund are pretty important to a lot of people, but I think the voters won’t go for it right now.”

Rep. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, said the targeted programs provide a safety net he doesn’t want ripped up.

He said he’s concerned an increase would come on the heels of two other hikes in Snohomish County — one for transit and the other for locally funded mental health services. Sales tax rates would range from 8 percent to 9.8 percent should this proposed measure pass.

“I have concerns. I’m not willing to put something on the ballot that I don’t personally support,” he said.

A coalition of health-care interest groups is trying to line up support for a campaign and for passage in the Legislature. A group funded by two Washington business groups is lining up to oppose the measure.

Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, told backers he’ll support putting it on the ballot. He may not vote for it later, and right now he’s not sure it can pass.

“I’ve seen some of the polling data on this. It’s razor thin. I’ll give them the opportunity,” he said.

Two Senate Democrats said they won’t — if the legislation reaches them.

“I will not vote to put it on the ballot,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens. “My constituents said they did not want it.”

Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said: “I am not convinced. People right now are feeling so heavily taxed. I think it will have a hard time in the Senate.”

The measure, if passed by a simple majority in each chamber, will be placed directly on the ballot. No action by the governor is required.

Republicans, with 36 of the 98 House seats, cannot prevent passage. That hasn’t dimmed their passion.

Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, said that had Democrats made other spending decisions, they could have avoided the political drama now unfolding in the session’s final days.

“I find it troublesome that a budget is being planned to purposefully not fund very important items that would be high on my priority list in order to frighten the public into considering an increase in taxes,” she said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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