Comment: Lawmakers can start restoring equity to state taxes

Lower-income families pay a greater share of taxes than wealthier families. That needs to change.

By Treasure Mackley / For The Herald

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the pandemic, it’s that the status quo won’t suffice.

In fact, it’s hardly relevant. That’s true for public health, how businesses are run, and also with how our state collects revenue to fund the state budget. With about a week left in the Legislature’s regular session, our state lawmakers are rightfully looking beyond the status quo. Now they have an opportunity to make significant structural changes to help define a new, more equitable economy.

Our new organization, Invest in Washington Now, believes that now is the time to rebuild our state’s economy so that it works for all Washingtonians. We’ve urged state lawmakers to balance our upside-down tax code, address the massive inequities of our current system, and make sure all communities have the resources they need.

Across our state, families have lost loved ones, over one million people are unemployed, and small businesses are struggling to stay afloat, with many closing their doors permanently. Our communities and our lives have been forever changed. But so often these changes don’t show up in a balance sheet. There is no line item that captures the frustration, heartache and challenges families have faced.

The pandemic has shed a critical light on the way our state funds the programs and services that it provides to the benefit of all our communities. In short, there are serious deficiencies with our revenue streams. It’s not about how much money the state has, it’s about where it comes from. We can no longer allow the state budget to be balanced on the backs of low-income and working people.

For the past 100 years, Washington has struggled to consistently fund the services we all rely on that have made the state a great place to live: dynamic schools; strong local clinics and hospitals; good roads and safe bridges; plenty of quality childcare facilities; housing, meals, and support for seniors; and more. There are many needs, but only a few revenue streams for filling them and most are inadequate and inequitable.

It’s past time to address our upside-down tax system. As with many of the systems that our state and country are reckoning with now, this one is deeply flawed, highly inequitable, and perpetuates race and class divides. It has helped white and affluent communities accumulate wealth and pass it on generationally, while leaving behind low-income earners and people of color.

Indeed, Washington has the most regressive tax system in the country, worse even than Texas, Nevada and Oklahoma. While we don’t have a state income tax, folks at the bottom pay almost 18 percent of their income in other state and local taxes, while those at the top pay 3 percent of their income or less in taxes. That means those that can least afford it, pay seven times more of their income than high-income earners.

Thousands of Washingtonians are struggling during the pandemic, have lost jobs and loved ones. Yet, the wealthiest individuals are seeing their fortunes rise, often exponentially. We know now that our current system divides the haves and the have nots. We’ve seen how our system perpetuates race and class divides and starves our communities of the resources they need to prosper.

We can do better. We can come together, as we have in the past, to ensure that our communities have the resources necessary to ensure all can thrive, no exceptions.

Legislators have a chance to do that right now. Senate Bill 5096, a tax on extraordinary profits from the sale of stocks and bonds (also known as capital gains), would ensure the wealthiest Washingtonians pay their share, just like the rest of us already do. SB 5096 would apply to just 2 percent of the richest people in our state but it would help all of us by funding critical programs like early childhood education and the education legacy trust. It means we could keep money flowing to communities, where we need it most, not stuck at the top.

It’s time for lawmakers to ask those at the top — the wealthiest individuals and most profitable corporations — to do their part. By passing SB 5096, we can balance our upside-down tax code, keep money and resources flowing to our communities and invest in Washington.

Treasure Mackley is the executive director of the new organization Invest in Washington Now. IWN is a movement of educators, working families, and everyday Washingtonians advocating for new ways to rebuild our economy.

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