Fear is a powerful motivator. That may be why opponents of Initiative 1098 so often call the measure “the camel’s nose under the tent” — the notion being that I-1098’s proposed income tax, which would affect only the wealthiest 1.2% of Washington residents, will eventually expand to cover all taxpayers.
But could this animal really get into the tent — or is the whole thing just a mirage made visible only because of heated debate?
The wording of I-1098 clearly anticipates the issue; it requires a vote of the people to adjust either the tax rates or income thresholds. So no camel there. But critics are quick to point out that under Washington’s constitution, two years after an initiative passes the legislature can amend any initiative with a majority vote.
Predicting the future behavior of legislators and/or voters is an inexact process, to put it mildly. But I think there are three reasons why I-1098 will remain a tax only on high incomes:
First: legislators have shown zero political will to even entertain the notion of an income tax in the recent past, let alone jump off a political cliff by voting to expand one. An income tax bill is introduced practically every legislative session. It goes nowhere. Even in the face of massive revenue shortfalls caused by the recession over the past 3 years, legislators voted for far more cuts ($5.2 billion worth) than tax increases ($800 million worth), and the latter were on soda, bottled water, candy and gum – hardly far-reaching or bold measures.
Second: Even if the legislature found the collective political will to amend I-1098, Washington’s initiative process means it’s unlikely that decision would go unchallenged. (In fact, that’s exactly what’s happening with the aforementioned taxes on soda/water/candy/gum.) That alone changes the political calculus for any elected official considering a vote to change I-1098.
Third: When the challenged measure shows up on the ballot, voters would have to approve it. Just imagine trying to convince a majority of Washington voters to expand a progressive tax on the wealthy down to cover themselves and an already struggling middle class. It’s unlikely to happen, to put it mildly.
There is simply very little political will in the legislature to raise taxes — which is why citizens have had to take matters into their own hands with Initiative 1098. And in the end, Washington voters will have the last word.
[h/t to erik@electionland]
Looking for more information about Initiative 1098? Visit the Economic Opportunity Institute website.