Two of the state’s most well-known elder statesmen gathered in the Edmonds Community College Black Box Theater Thursday night to debate the merits of taxing the state’s wealthiest citizens to pay for public education and health care.
In a nutshell, the Town Hall-style forum on Initiative 1098 — hosted and moderated by D.J. Wilson of Wilson Strategic Communications — was a contrast in styles between Bill Gates Sr. (introducing himself as “an employee of a well-known foundation, but I’m on my own tonight”) and former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton.
Both men disagreed respectfully (unlike debates on today’s raucous cable TV news programs) but pulled no punches when stating their positions regarding 1098, which would tax those earning more than $200,000 a year (filing federal taxes as individuals) or $400,000 (joint filers). The measure also would cut property taxes and exempt small businesses from the business and occupation tax.
Also on the panel to speak in favor of the initiative was Marilyn Watkins, Policy Director at the Economic Opportunity Institute, while Paul Guppy, Vice President of Research at the Washington Policy Center, joined Gorton in speaking against. The program was co-sponsored by online community news organizations My Edmonds News and MLTnews, and was streamed live over both websites.
Both Gorton and Guppy predicted a gloomy future for Washington state if the initiative passes. “It will be devastating,” Gorton said. “It will pull down our personal income, reduce our employment, reduce our competitive advantage.” Guppy went further, stating that initiative “creates class warfare” and “soaks the rich.”
Gates, on the other hand, cited evidence — including the fact that Washington ranks 37th in the nation in school spending — that the state is not fulfilling its constitutional mandate to fully fund public education. “We need a modest contribution from the wealthiest among us to have a really effective, rigorous State of Washington public education system,” he said.
According to the Yes on 1098 website, the $2 billion the initiative would raise would be dedicated to the Education Legacy Trust Fund for K-12 class size reductions, extended learning opportunities, pre-kindergarten, and expanding access to higher education, as well as to fund the voter-approved Basic Health Plan, public health services, and long-term care for vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities.
During the forum, Wilson showed examples of each campaign’s advertising, including one from 1098 supporters — playing on the “soak the rich” claims — that featured Gates falling into a dunk tank.
Gorton mentioned several times his belief that passing a state income tax in Washington would end the competitive advantage that our state currently has over neighboring Oregon, which has both an income tax and longstanding financial troubles. “That Oregon economic development guy is just praying that we’ll pass 1098 so that they can catch up with us,” Paul added.
But Gates wasn’t buying that argument. “Do you believe the tax you’ve heard about imposed upon the wealthiest 1-plus percent of the people in this state would cause our state to become a laggard in some way, go to hell in a hand basket and go the way of Oregon,” he asked the audience.
Wilson presented a chart from the Yes on 1098 campaign that showed various taxes that Washington now levies — from sales and excise taxes to property tax to federal income tax — and how those disproportionately impact those with lower incomes. And he shared a chart from the Defeat 1098 campaign that factors in the direct public assistance that low-income people receive, which demonstrates that the state’s current tax structure “is actually flat to progressive,” Guppy said.
Gorton and Guppy also repeated what has become the commonly heard radio and television sound-bite for the no campaign — that the state Legislature will eventually change the law so that a tax on the wealthy will trickle down to everyone, and the entire state will be covered by an income tax. Here’s the No campaign’s ad on that, which was also shown during the forum:
Gates and Watkins both said they believed the Legislature would not expand the tax, but even if lawmakers did, the action could be repealed through citizen referendum.
The entire Civic Engagement Forum was taped by Edmonds Community College staff, and will be televised over EdCC cable channel 21/26 in the near future. My Edmonds News will post the broadcast schedule as soon as it becomes available.