Doing away with tax breaks, even if only on a temporary basis, would seem to be a prudent move for state government in the midst of a fiscal crisis such as the one Washington is now facing -- at least in theory.
But the reason for tax breaks is rarely an act of generosity. Tax exemptions are usually offered as part of a deal to benefit the state and its citizens. Tax breaks are almost always to keep businesses in the state and keep folks employed.
Yet, leaders of the state's largest labor organization seem fixated on theory rather than reality when it comes to this tax issue.
The Washington State Labor Council last week proposed suspending $3 billion or more in tax breaks as a way to reduce cuts in state spending.
Labor Council President Jeff Johnson said the state's $4.8 billion revenue shortfall projected for the next two-year budget cycle makes it clear the state can't afford to continue offering the assortment of tax breaks that have built up over the years.
"Whether they're good, bad or indifferent, we simply can't afford them right now," Johnson said.
He got it half right. If they're bad, they should go. But if they are good -- as in beneficial to the citizens -- they should remain.
But the Labor Council wants to take a broad approach to reform. It is interested in suspending entire categories of tax exemptions as opposed to specific items, such as taxes on soda, candy and bottled water that was tried last year, The Associated Press reports.
Johnson and other Labor Council officials make the case that lives could be at stake if health services are eliminated because of the budget crisis. Labor leaders are also concerned about the loss of jobs by union members.
Lawmakers, of course, take the health and welfare of the public and the loss of jobs into consideration in crafting a budget -- even one that requires making difficult decisions on what is and is not funded.
That, however, should not be directly linked to whether tax policy is turned upside down without looking at the ramifications of each specific exemption. Frankly, there is no simple or easy way to bring in $3 billion in tax revenue.
Even if lawmakers were to suspended the bulk of tax exemptions, it does not mean the extra revenue would all be collected. Businesses would likely alter their practices, perhaps shifting projects to other states, to avoid taxes.
A blanket suspension or repeal of tax exemptions would be a huge mistake.
But it makes sense to review the current tax exemptions -- one by one -- in an effort to determine if each is serving the intended purpose and whether keeping the exemption ultimately benefits the public.
This exercise likely won't yield billions, but it could garner several million -- every penny of which is welcome under the current circumstances.