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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Could proposed capital-gains tax be vehicle for Supreme Court re-look at income tax?

The proposed capital gains tax that the Democratic controlled House of Representatives insists must be a part of the final legislative budget package likely stirs the inevitable liberal hopes and conservative fears about it being the vehicle to bring the issue of state income tax before the state Supreme Court.

Democrats are routinely hopeful of finding an opportunity to pass a tax measure that would cause the state's highest court to re-look at the constitutionality of a Washington income tax while Republicans are pretty much always on guard against that happening.

Thus the seemingly illogical positions of Democrats wanting a tax measure the Legislature passed over GOP opposition to be challenged to the Supreme Court and Republicans not wanting a measure they opposed to be appealed.  

Hugh Spitzer 

But the real logic is in understanding realities. Proponents of adding some sort of a tax on income to the tax structure in Washington have become convinced that the state Supreme Court, given the opportunity, would reverse the longstanding precedent that an income tax is unconstitutional in this state. And many opponents of an income tax apprehensively agree with that analysis.

  

It's been 82 years since Washington's Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 decision, held that a graduated net income tax would violate the state constitution's uniformity provision because 'income' was 'property' and property was to be taxed uniformly.

Washington is one of only seven states with no income tax, but by almost any measure, it is the most progressive of the states with no tax on either personal or corporate income.  

The 1933 ruling on the unconstitutionality of an income tax has meant that it would require a two- thirds vote of the legislature and the voters to amend the constitution to impose an income tax. And despite repeated efforts to get the voters, since that supreme court ruling, to approve an income tax, no proposal has come close to approval.

But Seattle attorney Hugh Spitzer, an expert on the state constitution and long an advocate of a state income tax, agrees that the state high court, given the opportunity, would overturn the precedent case. But he says the proposed capital-gains tax, which Gov. Jay Inslee and Democrats pitch as targeting the investment income of the super wealthy, isn't likely to be the vehicle to get the issue before the court.

"Although I wish that this legislation, if enacted, would provide an opportunity to re-look at the constitutionality of a Washington income tax, I'm not sure that it would necessarily provide that opportunity," Spitzer emailed me when I posed the question to him this week.

"The state capital gains tax proposal has been carefully drafted to stay comfortably within the definitional parameters of an excise tax," Spitzer said, adding "I helped with the drafting of early versions of the proposed capital gains tax, and the language I worked with is still there."

"It's a one-time tax on a transaction rather than a periodic (i.e., yearly) tax on property.  The tax can be easily avoided by not selling the asset giving rise to the capital gains tax-this is an indicator of an excise tax rather than a property tax," he explained. "Property taxes can't be avoided by means of a voluntary action (like refraining from a purchase or a sale)." 

But likely stirring the emotions of liberal hope and conservative fear about a new supreme court decision, Spitzer, now acting professor at the University of Washington Law School, argues that the current State Supreme Court would accept an income tax as constitutional.  

"Fundamentally, the cases they relied on in 1933 all tied back to three United States Supreme Court cases which have been reversed or, in one case, wiped out by a U.S. Constitutional amendment. The background law no longer exists." Not to mention that this Supreme Court is dramatically more liberal in its makeup than the court in 1933.

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