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Legislature: Lawmakers Air Latest Gripe On Border Taxation

BY Howard Buck
by Howard Buck on 2/17/01.

OLYMPIA -- Folks here sniff and call them "letters to Santa Claus" memorial bills approved by the Legislature that lack teeth, but send a wistful message to the U.S. President, Congress or officials in other states.

How fitting that, as fresh snow fell Friday on the Capitol, Clark County lawmakers fired off their latest complaint against Oregon income taxes levied on Washington residents.

All six House members from the 17th, 18th and 49th legislative districts, plus two other Oregon-border lawmakers, have sponsored House Joint Memorials 4009 and 4010.

The bills urge Washington Gov. Gary Locke and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to tackle the tax inequity that hits 60,000 or more Clark County residents now commuting to Oregon jobs. Each pays Oregon income tax, yet gets scant service in return.

Another bill, House Concurrent Resolution 4407, would set up a 24-person, bi-state committee of legislators and appointed citizens to seek more equitable taxation.

They're the latest of several fist-shaking proposals against Oregon in recent years, none of which has passed the House or Senate.

And this year's effort has about as much chance as, well, a snowball in a very warm place.

It's simple: Oregon lawmakers don't care, because it's not a problem for their voters. Ditto for Washington legislators safely distant from the Beaver State.

"Until they start getting the same calls from their constituents, they don't care. It's free money, to them," said Sen. Don Benton, R-Pleasant Valley, a loud critic of Oregon's tax windfall.

He and Sen. Don Carlson, R-Vancouver, have sponsored Senate Joint Memorial 8008, also calling for a bi-state "tax fairness" commission. No hearing date has been scheduled.

In fact, Clark County residents reportedly pay more than $ 100 million in annual Oregon income tax. That's more than 29 Oregon counties pay, the House resolution claims.

At home, the grass roots group Northwest Residents Advocating Fair Taxation, or NWRAFT, has pressed the topic. It may get new help this year from the statewide, anti-tax group Citizens for a Sound Economy, due to descend on Olympia on Monday.

So said Rep. Jim Dunn, R-Cascade Park, who led the charge for the three House bills.

Dunn admits his purpose is mostly to keep debate alive. Washington can't strike back against Oregon, at least not constitutionally, and so the best hope is more publicity, he said.

Apathy at home

Surely, it would help if the House or Senate here took a serious look. But supporters aren't holding their breath.

"I don't know that there's really opposition. It's just not a priority for them," explained Rep. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, who signed onto the three bills. His 19th District includes Longview, Cathlamet and Ilwaco, home to more cross-state commuters.

Also backing the Clark County delegation is Rep. Bill Grant, D-Walla Walla.

Despite the odds, it's still the fight worth fighting, said freshman Rep. Bill Fromhold, D-Vancouver.

"It's our responsibility, to look for ways to communicate on this," he said.

But Rep. John Pennington, R-Carrolls, a Finance Committee member and well-versed in border taxation woes, wants no part of a new bi-state panel.

He fears the result might be a call for a Washington income tax, not just relief for commuters.

"We know the issue (already). I don't think setting up a committee like that does any good," said Pennington. "You gotta be careful what you ask for with this plan."