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Will WA Offer Life Support to Basic Health Plan?

February 16, 2011

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Battling to keep social-service programs such as the Basic Health Plan alive in Washington, advocates are saying that corporations or groups that benefit from specific tax exemptions should either have to justify them or lose them.

New legislation lists four specific exemptions that could be closed, with the money used to keep the Basic Health Plan alive. The bill would end tax breaks for elective cosmetic surgery and private jets, profit that out-of-state banks make on home mortgages, and coal shipped in from out of state to make electricity.

House Bill 1847, with about two dozen sponsors, would raise between $135 million and $157 million. The bill has reached the House Ways and Means Committee, but a hearing date has not been set.

Safety-net programs regularly have to prove their worth to the state, says Marilyn Watkins, policy director for the Economic Opportunity Institute, so beneficiaries of tax breaks should do the same.

"Some of these special tax breaks that have been in place for so long and never really have been examined, it's time to say, 'There are things that are more important.' We're not saying that any of these things are necessarily bad. We're just saying that, in these times, some of these special tax breaks are just going to have to go away."

The Basic Health Plan is the state-funded program for low-wage workers who can't afford the full cost of their health insurance but pay a portion of it based on their income. Currently, it is funded through May.

Rebecca Kavoussi, vice president for government affairs with the Community Health Network of Washington, thinks HB 1847 has a fighting chance.

"Given how deep the cuts are, there's a lot of energy around really scrubbing and looking at all the corporate loopholes that we haven't put through nearly the same rigor as we've put these public programs over the past decade."

Private aircraft owners are already vowing to fight the one-half percent tax on their planes. The representative from Thurston County says eliminating the coal tax exemption could harm the TransAlta plant in Centralia, and Gov. Chris Gregoire has called the potential income a "drop in the bucket" compared with the state's total shortfall. But social-service advocates say every dollar helps.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA