Lawmakers have proposed an income tax more than 50 times since 1991 » Publications » Washington Policy Center

In preparation for the upcoming state Supreme Court hearing on capital gains income tax (the date for oral argument is not yet set), I wanted to see how many times lawmakers have proposed a tax on income. We already know that voters rejected six constitutional amendments to allow for progressive income tax. Since those votes, however, some lawmakers have refused to take no for an answer. In fact, since 1991, more than 50 bills have been proposed to impose a broad-based income tax. This rules out the many proposals over the years to impose a capital gains tax.

We know from public records that the real purpose of passing the capital gains tax is to see if the state Supreme Court will change nearly 100 years of rulings affirming that Washingtonians own their income, which means it is property. Consider the following 2018 email from Senator Jamie Pedersen (page 1 of the pdf):

“But the most important benefit of enacting a capital gains tax is legal, from my point of view. The other side will challenge it by calling it an unconstitutional property tax. It will give the Supreme Court the opportunity to reverse its bad decisions of 1934 and 1951 that income is property and allow, if we are successful, to pass a progressive income tax by simple majority.

The Washington Education Association (WEA) joins this strategy of ignoring voters and hoping that the courts will now allow a progressive income tax without constitutional amendment. On June 30, the WEA filed a legal case with the State Supreme Court in the capital gains tax case asking the judges to change their previous rulings and now declare that the income is not is not property (meaning you do not own it).

Here’s how the state constitution defines ownership (this definition was adopted by voters via a constitutional amendment):

“The word ‘property’ as used herein means and includes everything, tangible or intangible, subject to ownership.”

The State Supreme Court was very clear that we own our income and it is property. The need to amend the constitution if a progressive income tax is to be imposed in Washington has long been the clear and consistent message from the state Supreme Court. For example, on September 13, 1960, the the state supreme court issued a one-page unanimous decision with this sage advice: Don’t ask the court to overturn its numerous decisions prohibiting a progressive income tax; rather amend the constitution.

This 1960 ruling is so timeless that current state Supreme Court justices could simply reissue it this part of the decision in response to the WEA’s request to bypass voters:

“The argument is again pressed upon us that these cases were wrongly decided. The court, however, does not want to deviate from the position announced in its repeated decisions. Among other things, the Attorney General insists that the result is now different because the state is facing a financial crisis. If so, the constitution can be amended by popular vote. Such a constitutional amendment was defeated by popular vote in 1934.”

The judges must have wanted to limit their 1960 decision to a single page, otherwise they could have listed all the times Washingtonians have rejected a constitutional amendment to allow a progressive income tax. Including those since that ruling, the people rejected these proposals in 1934, 1936, 1938, 1942, 1970 and 1973. Washington voters also rejected several income tax ballot initiatives in 1944, 1975, 1982 and 2010.

Based on citizen feedback to the Tax Structure Task Force, The Washingtonian’s opposition to an income tax has not wavered. In March of this year, members of the Tax Structure Task Force formally voted to remove any consideration of a corporate or personal income tax from its legislative recommendations. According to the Tax Work Group consultant’s report:

  • “Overall, respondents did not feel that taxing income would be fairer than taxing only retail expenses and home value. The responses are relatively similar with respect to age, income and geographic region.
  • “Respondents of color felt more that this (income tax) scenario would not be fairer than their white respondents.”
  • “People of color surveyed do not think progressive income taxation is a fairer approach.”

Although Washington voters have repeatedly and overwhelmingly opposed the imposition of an income tax, as evidenced by the more than 50 income tax proposals since 1991, some lawmakers have failed to understand the message. If the state Supreme Court took the bait of capital gains tax proponents and ruled, as demanded by the WEA, that we don’t own our income, expect to see even more fiscal activities on the part of legislators in the near future.

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