At yesterday's bill signing ceremony in which the contentiously negotiated supplemental budget became law, Governor Chris Gregoire boldly came out in favor of raising taxes to fund education:
“We cannot meet our constitutional mandate on K through 12 and the McCleary case, our moral mandate for early learning and our economic mandate for higher education if we are not going to look at new revenue...”
Okay, I guess that's not so bold coming from a governor retiring from elective office the end of this year. But she did have some bold advice for her successor:
"To the candidates that are running, we can say 'no new revenue,'" she said. "The reality is we cannot live up to our responsibilities without new revenue. That is my opinion. It is sound. I am not playing games. It's the truth."
Yes it is. And another truth is that there's no way to raise the billions of additional dollars a year needed to fully fund education under the terms of the McCleary decision without taxing income and/or financial assets. Which brings me back to an immodest proposal I've written about a number of times before: The Education Income Tax.
The proposal is simple. An income tax would be levied, dedicated solely to funding basic K-12 education, and that income tax would be the sole source of basic K-12 funding.
The Education Income Tax essentially takes K-12 spending out of the general fund and into its own budget with it’s own dedicated revenue stream, balancing a popular public service against a generally unpopular tax. And by walling off both K-12 spending and the income tax that supports it from the rest of the budget, it eliminates the possibility of budgetary tricks through the usual fungibility of funds.
How much would it raise, and what would it look like? Well, the state currently spends about $13 billion per biennium on K-12 education, a total the court suggests may be $2 billion to $8 billion short of what's needed. Split the difference and figure about $18 billion, a little more than half the projected revenue in the next biennium. This is no high earner's income tax, but rather a more broad based alternative that would reach well into the middle class.
But in return we could eliminate the state portion of the property tax (currently dedicated to education), slash the state sales tax from 6.5 percent to 3.0, and still have billions of dollars to target at further tax cuts or program enhancements, on top of the extra $5 billion for K-12. Plus, by replacing much of our highly regressive sales tax with a progressive income tax, the majority of Washington households would pay less in total state taxes, not more, as our most-regressive-in-the-nation tax structure (and by far) is substantially flattened in the direction of fairness.
Finally, no state relies more heavily on the sales tax than Washington, a tax that keeps pace neither with economic growth nor the cost of educating our children, whereas an income tax, over time, would reliably grow revenues commensurate with our needs.
Of course, under ideal circumstances we wouldn't need to rely on gimmicks like dedicated taxes. But these aren't ideal circumstances. So anything that can get the conversation rolling on revenue is worth putting out there.