Facing a $9 billion state budget deficit, Gov. Chris Gregoire and the state legislature claim they’re looking everywhere to make cuts. But Alex Ng, Ricky Tran, Jennifer Truong, and Joann Ucol, students in Miriam Miller’s 10th Grade Law & Society/History & Humanities classes at Franklin High School, think state officials ought to look under their long noses. Rather than, say, cutting housing, education, and medical benefits to the poor, how about removing some of those multimillion-dollar tax breaks for Boeing, Microsoft, and other corpulent cats?
Miller’s students put together a PowerPoint presentation, using figures from a Seattle Weekly story (“$64 Billion Falls Through the Tax Cracks,” Feb. 18, 2004), detailing 503 tax exemptions worth $64 billion in givebacks to individuals and industry. The presentation asked why, for one, Washington schools could be so underfunded when the repeal of just a few select tax breaks could remedy that shortage? “I sent the PowerPoint to [House speaker] Frank Chopp, [then–King County exec] Ron Sims, the presidents of the various bar associations, and so on,” says Miller. “And there was no response.”
That’s likely because no one wants to talk about erasing tax exemptions that, rather than being reversed, have steadily been expanded by state lawmakers. Today, “tax preference items,” as the state Department of Revenue (DOR) calls them in its 2008 exemptions report, number 567 and total $98.5 billion—up more than $34 billion from four years ago. They include, for example, the more than $4 billion in tax breaks for Boeing to smaller exemptions handed out to myriad businesses—grocers, caterers, farmers, and brewers, to name a few.
Typically, those are exemptions recipients obtained by lobbying the governor and legislature, claiming the breaks were needed to profit and survive. But while many exemptions are necessary and commonplace—property-tax breaks, for example—DOR director Cindi Holmstrom says her staff has identified a series of exemptions that, if eliminated, could bring $15 billion into state coffers. They include reversing exemptions on some aerospace, high-tech, biotech, agriculture, newspaper, vehicle, fruit-processing, fuel, tobacco, and beverage products and processes—all detailed in a 330-page report on DOR’s website.
A state commission is also reviewing the exemptions, notes DOR spokesperson Mike Gowrylow. But it has made little headway. The breaks aren’t a sexy topic, nor easily understood. Miller’s class realized that, and in their presentation suggested the answer might be a state income tax. But as the kids put it, “The people of the State of Washington have no will to change the tax system.”