Shining a Spotlight on Washington State’s Dirty Little Secret

In so many ways, Washington state is a beacon of progressive politics to the rest of the nation. Sure, we’ve got our share of conservatives here, but for the most part we’re a pot-loving, worker-friendly, transit-happy state. We protect the environment, we encourage innovative industries, we keep our wages high, and we do our part to end gun violence. We’d be a leftie heaven on earth, except for one thing: our tax structure is an absolute mess.

In this week’s episode of our podcast The Other Washington — be sure to subscribe on iTunesStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts—Hanna Brooks Olsen, Goldy and I investigate our state’s regressive tax structure. For Washingtonians, Goldy explains, “if you earn over $500,000 a year, you live in the lowest-taxed state in the nation. But if you earn under $20,000 a year, you live in the highest.”

As you might expect, this massive inequality causes some enormous problems. We talk about how a lack of revenue is screwing up basic state functions like education. We compare Washington to other states (we even suck when compared to libertarian New Hampshire) and we discuss what our awful tax structure might mean for our state’s future.

Special guest Misha Werschkul from the Washington State Budget and Policy Center joins Hanna to talk about how we came to be the worst state in the nation on taxes, and what solutions might look like. It’s not just a matter of rolling out an income tax: Werschkul discusses a proposal to create a capital gains tax that would only affect the wealthiest Washingtonians.

And it’s important to remember that it’s not just individuals who are suffering under our tax system. Werschkul says the tax is regressive for small businesses, too: “if you’re a small business in Washington state and you are frustrated by the business tax,” she says, “you probably have a reason to be that way because other businesses aren’t paying their fair share.” Those huge corporations enjoy lots of loopholes and advantages that middle-class business owners don’t.

This is not a partisan problem: both Democrats and Republicans have contributed to our state’s awful tax structure, and the inaction we’re seeing from both parties is only making things worse. Voters have considered changing the tax code before, but those proposals have gone down in flames. We talk about why that is, and why we might finally be ready for change.

I hope you’ll listen to the episode. It’s a great primer for anyone who wants to understand how we got to this place and why our politicians sometimes seem paralyzed when it comes to enacting big progressive ideas. In future episodes of The Other Washington, we’ll dig into more solutions and explore exciting ideas for what we can do once we finally—finally!—establish a more equitable tax structure that lives up to our reputation as one of the most progressive states in the nation.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.