Politics & Government

Oregon tax vote won't alter Washington's course, lawmakers say

OLYMPIA -- Washington lawmakers who are considering their own options for bringing in more revenue are trying not to read too much into a vote Tuesday by Oregonians to accept higher taxes.

Oregon voters were asked whether they were willing to pay more taxes to cover a budget shortfall or if they wanted the state to tighten its budget belt.

The Oregon Legislature passed a bill in 2009 raising the income tax for people earning more than $125,000 and another raising the minimum tax on corporations.

Opponents gathered more than enough signatures to send those two questions to voters, and voters answered with a solid "yes" on both ballot measures.

Measure 66, raising the tax on income above $125,000 for individuals and $250,000 for households, passed 54 percent to 46 percent statewide.

Measure 67, establishing a $150 minimum tax for most businesses, passed 53 percent to 47 percent.

The measures failed in rural Umatilla County, where Measure 66 received 7,977 yes votes, or 48 percent, and 8,677 no votes, or 52 percent. Measure 67 had 7,739 yes votes, or 46 percent, and 8,927 no votes, or 54 percent.

There has been speculation Washington lawmakers -- faced with a $2.6 billion budget shortfall through June 2011 -- were looking to Oregon to gauge what kind of mood Northwest voters are in when it comes to taxes.

But with the tax measures having passed, they're still uncertain those results will translate to Washington.

"It is not changing our direction," said Washington's House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. "It is heartening to know other people have gone through it."

But while Oregon and Washington as neighboring states hold many similarities, Chopp noted their tax structures are different. For example, Oregon has an income tax and Washington does not.

Some Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, have said creating an income tax for high earners would be one way to balance out a system they perceive as unfair.

But they've acknowledge that voters likely won't agree this year.

"I still believe in having a discussion about tax reform," Brown said in response to the Oregon vote. "I think it's a discussion Washington needs to have, both on the business side and the personal finances side of the equation. But I also think it's a multi-year discussion, and the success of any reform proposal will require a strong grass-roots element."

Majority Democrats in the Washington Legislature have said they're looking to close tax loopholes, and a possible infusion of federal cash, to balance the supplemental budget they're writing during the 60-day legislative session that ends in March.

But taxes in some form also are on the table.

"We've thought all along in the Senate that we can't take an all-cuts approach to the budget shortfall, but we can't take an all-revenue approach either," Brown said. "We're looking at a balance between the two, and the results from Oregon don't change strategy."

Republican leaders said they weren't using Oregon's vote as a bellwether for how Washington voters might react to tax proposals.

"I didn't read too much into the Massachusetts wind either because we're nine months from the election," said House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis. "Oregon is a very different state than we are."

-- Michelle Dupler: 360-753-0862; mdupler@tricityherald.com