Hello again from the Crosscut Festival, hosted by Seattle University.
For the second session I attended a panel titled “Tax breaks for titans” including Washington state Senator Reuven Carlyle, chair of the Washington Health Benefit Exchange Board and former Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Ron Sims, Kriss Sjoblom of the Washington Research Council, and Larry Brown from Aerospace Machinists Union District Lodge 751. The moderator is former Crosscut Managing Editor Drew Atkins.
Atkins first pointed out the context of Amazon’s search for a new city to host their HQ2, and the tax incentives that governments are offering to try to get Amazon to locate there. He also reminded everyone that the largest corporate tax break in US history was from Washington state to Boeing in 2013.
Rep. Carlyle said that Washington has the most tax breaks because we have the most upside-down and backwards tax structure in the nation. Regarding the negotiations around Boeing tax breaks, he acknowledged that there were both “substantive wins and substantive loses” for the people of Washington.
Sims noted that in his 2004 run for governor, he criticized tax cuts for Boeing, but that it was only an example of one aspect of the issue. He believes we need(ed) a larger discussion about taxation. Tax reform, not tax breaks, are what needs to happen.
In his question to Brown from the Machinists Union, Atkins noted that Newark, NJ offered the largest package of benefits and tax incentives to Amazon, partially because they have a very high unemployment rate and want the jobs. Brown said the Machinist Union supported tax cuts for Boeing, but that there is a specific context.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, orders for planes dropped dramatically as there was less air travel. Twenty-thousand hourly workers were laid off from Boeing, plus comparable number of salaried workers. Workers were very concerned since Boeing had moved their corporate headquarters to Chicago, and it seemed like Boeing’s commitment to Washington State was waning. So they wanted to make sure to keep Boeing, and their jobs, here.
However they also didn’t know that Boeing would be outsourcing wing construction to Japan and a second line to South Carolina. So in the 2013 negotiations, they stipulated that wing and second line construction could not go anywhere else, and supported the tax incentive.
Atkins said that whenever he brings up attaching more strings to the tax cuts for Boeing, people say “we didn’t have the leverage” to have done that in our negotiations. He asked Brown why that was.
Brown replied that “I think we had more leverage than we thought we did.”
He pointed to delays and cost overruns with components that are being built in Japan and South Carolina, but that Washington’s Boeing workers have a consistent history of delivering projects on time. He pointed out that Boeing has moved over 16,000 jobs out of state since the tax incentive package was passed. There have been efforts to implement a tax incentive accountability measure, but it hasn’t happened.
Carlyle shared that in 1995, Washington was the 11th state in the nation in terms of combined level of taxation. Over the next twenty years, that went down to 35th. Among the changes that caused this decline, he noted Tim Eyman initiatives.
“We are on our way to being a low tax, low service state,” Carlyle continued. He says Washington residents are being “nickeled and dimed to death.” He feels the state is not taxing in a responsible way, that there are very real structural issues with how we tax, and preferences to companies like Boeing are just a piece of that.
When asked if he had anything to add to Carlye’s comments, Sims said “I couldn’t have said it as eloquently.” He says that we know we need to fix the system, and there is going to be a day of reckoning if we don’t.
Carlyle continued to point out that in Washington state, most taxes are paid by small businesses and people in the middle class.
“What we need is consistent rates, broadly applied, with few exceptions, but we have the exact opposite; varying rates, narrowly applied, with hundreds of exceptions.” This was the first comment of the day that I witnessed to get applause.
When Atkins asked what needed to be done in order balance taxes, Sims said “a new president and a new congress.” This comment received laughs and loud applause.
Sims continued that we cant let institutions hit rock bottom before we make changes. If they do, that will probably prove to more people that changes need to be made to our tax structure, but he hopes it will not come to that and that we can make necessary changes sooner than that.
“If we want to be a vibrant, competitive state for the rest of century, we have to change,” Sims said.