Category Archives: Tax Expenditure Budget

Tax Exemption Transparency and Accountabiliy Act – SB 5513

Testimony in support of SB 5513 – the Tax Exemption Transparency and Accountability Act

Washington State Senate Ways and Means Committee, Jan. 18, 2018

Steve Zemke – Tax Sanity

 Thank you for this opportunity to testify on this legislation.

This is the fifth year this bill has been before you and each year it picks up additional support.  Senate SB 5513 has 14 sponsors and its companion bill in the House, HB 1500, has 33 sponsors. This is almost one third of our state Legislators.  

 Legislation to create a Tax Expenditure Budget has been increasingly supported by numerous groups in our state, including the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, All in for Washington, the Washington State Labor Council, the League of Women Voters of Washington, Washington’s Paramount Duty, the Washington State Democratic Party, the Washington Education Association, SEIU 775, Northwest Progressive Institute, Washington Federation of State Employees, Washington State Council of Firefighters, Faith Action Network, Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action,  and others

 Why are these groups supporting this legislation? Because they believe that a system of tax expenditures that gives away more in revenue from the tax base than it collects is a broken system.  They believe that tax exemptions need transparency and accountability and fairness. That does not exist now.

 Tax Exemptions, preferences, deductions, credits, and deferrals are off budget expenditures. They lack the transparency and accountably that exists for other expenditures the state makes as part of the biennial budget process. According to the Department of Revenue’s projection in their 2016 Tax Exemption Report for the 2015 to 2017 biennium they projected that while the state would collect some $7.4 billion in B&O taxes, they would exempt from the same tax base some $11.4 billion. This gap has widened since the last biennium.

Including the rest of the tax exemptions in their report, the Department of Revenue projected that off budget tax expenditures would total almost $40 billion while only collecting revenue totaling some $32.6 billion.

 Of the 694 tax exemptions in that report about 450 are discretionary.  The Department of Revenue projected that in the 2017 to 2019 Biennium that of the $54 billion in projected tax expenditures, some $30 billion would fall into “potential revenue gains”. 

 This legislation does not mandate wholesale repeal of tax expenditures.  It asks for accountability and transparency and biennial review and gives the legislature the ability to act to end exemptions if they do not meet the priorities of government the same as expenditures in the regular biennial operating appropriations budget must.

 Concern about the current system includes a quickly dated Tax Exemption report by the Department of Revenue that is only updated once every 4 years.  Most other states in the country update their report every 2 years or less. California updates their Tax Expenditure report every year.

Companies like Microsoft, Starbucks, Expedia, Adobe and Boeing all must report to their stockholders every year and issue quarterly profit and loss statements.  Their financial statements are scrutinized by their stockholders. It does not make sense that Washington State only updates its Tax Exemption Report every 4 years. It will next be updated in 2020. It should at a minimum be updated two years just as the state biennial budget is..

Only 73 of the 694 listed exemptions in the 2016 Tax Exemption Report have sunset provisions. This means 89% of the tax expenditures have no sunset provision and never require the Washington State legislature to ever vote on them again. Meanwhile all expenditures in the regular operating appropriations budget are scrutinized and voted on every 2 years with adjustment made in the 2nd year of the biennium.

 Also in the Tax exemption report, 54 exemptions are listed as “unable to disclose” the amount of revenue involved.  Businesses and other entities are benefiting from state tax law in getting exemptions and lower or no taxes. The public has a right to know the value of these exemptions. 

The public has a right to know that these exemptions are creating jobs or providing valuable services to Washington State citizens just as they expect expenditures in the regular budget appropriations bill to produce.

  We require that accountability in the regular budget appropriations process – we don’t say we’re spending state revenue but the public doesn’t have the right to know because the recipient doesn’t want us to know what they are getting.

 With the current lack of accountability and transparency and sound fiscal review and evaluation as to whether current tax expenditures meet the state priorities of government and have clear measurable objectives as to their effectiveness in meeting state needs, taxpayers and citizens in this state increasingly believe state government and the legislature are not doing their job.

.Please step up and vote to fix this broken tax expenditure system that severely lacks needed transparency, accountability and sound fiscal management of our total state budget.

 Steve Zemke

 Director Tax Sanity

Help Fund Public Education Now by Ending Tax Exemptions as Off Budget Spending


Washington State currently gives away more revenue from its tax base than it collects. This is a broken tax system built up over many years.  

The Washington State Department of Revenue in their 2016 Tax Expenditure Report  projected for the 2015 -2017 biennium that off budget tax expenditures would total almost $40 billion while only collecting revenue totaling some $32.6 billion.

We don’t generally think of them as such but these tax exemptions, preferences, deductions, credits and deferrals are off budget expenditures. They lack the accountability and transparency that exists for other expenditures the state makes as part of the biennial budget process.

The Governor must as part of the biennial budget process evaluate all expenditures according to a Priorities of Government protocol. Unfortunately tax exemptions do not have the same criteria or scrutiny. The result is that while the state legislature is seemingly unable to comply with  the Washington State Supreme Court’s McCleary decision to fulfill Washington’s “paramount duty” under the Washington State Constitution to fund public education, it excludes from tax collection billions of dollars.

Taxpayers deserve better accountability and transparency of the state’s  tax and revenue system. They deserve to know who is receiving these tax exemptions, how much money is involved and for what reason they are given. They deserve to have a system that prioritizes state needs, not exemptions for special interests and the wealthy that benefit from a system where 90% of the exemptions have no sunset provision while the state budget has a biennial review and vote as to funding.

According to the Washington State Department of Revenue’s  2016 Tax Exemption Study, while the State expects to collect some $7.4 billion in B&O tax revenue in the current 2015 -2017 biennium, it exempts from collection some $11.4 billion. When sales and use taxes were included with the analysis, the results are similar – the state expects to collect some $18.9 billion in revenue from sales and use tax, while exempting some $16.9 billion in revenue

Washington State has created some 694 tax exemptions over the years. Over 450 of these are discretionary tax exemptions, not required by Federal or State constitutional law. These discretionary tax exemptions will account for over $28.3 billion in B &O and sales/use tax revenue not collected in the current biennium..

Including property tax exemptions the 2016 Department of Revenue Report projects that in total, Washington State will see as off budget tax expenditures almost $40 billion in tax exemptions this biennium while only collecting revenues of $32.6 billion for the Legislature to fund its biennial budget.

HB 1500 introduced by Rep.Pollet and 32 other sponsors would require the governor to propose and the state legislature to adopt a Tax Expenditure Budget every 2 years as part of the biennial omnibus operating appropriations act. A companion bill, SB 5513 has been introduced in the WA State Senate by Senator David Frockt with 12 other sponsors.

HB 1500 / SB 5513 would give the Washington State Legislature an opportunity to periodically evaluate the need and effectiveness of the state’s tax exemptions in meeting current state needs. They would do this at the same time they are making budget decisions about prioritizing other state expenditures for public services as part of the biennial budget appropriations process.

What would HB 1500 /SB 5513 – the Tax Exemption Transparency and Accountability Act do?

 This measure would require new and existing discretionary tax exemptions to be authorized every two years in a tax expenditure budget. It will add much needed transparency and accountability to the hundreds of exemptions and preferences, along with their cost and how each decision to spend money on an exemption or preference is a choice to expend funds for this purpose with particular beneficiaries.

The tax expenditure budget would detail the fiscal impact, purpose, and effectiveness in meeting the purpose of each tax exemption.

 Tax exemption not included in the tax expenditure budget would expire at the end of the calendar year in which the budget is adopted.

Contact your Legislators at and urge them to support the Tax Exemption Transparency and Accountability Act.

 Action item – Urging your Legislators to pass HB 1500 and companion bill SB 5513 is easy. You can leave them a message by going to, entering 1500 or 5513 for the bill number after clicking the bill information link and then clicking on “comment on this bill.” Or call the Legislative hotline at 1-800-562-6000 and leave a message to for your legislators and the Governor to support HB 1500 and SB 5513 to prioritize state spending, accountability and transparency by creating a Tax Expenditure Budget as part of the biennial budget appropriations process.

Be sure to thank your legislators if they are a sponsor of this legislation. Their support is appreciated. Legislators sponsoring HB 1500 – Pollet, Farrell, Appleton, Tarleton, Ryu, Wylie, Santos, Marci, Doglio, Jinkins, Orwall, Tharinger, Stonier, Kagi, Fitzgibbon, Kloba, Stanford, Berquist, McBride, Ortiz-Self, Goodman, Dolan, Cody, Pettigrew, Riccelli, Sells, Hudgins, Kirby, Lovick, Frame, Peterson, Ormsby, Pellicciotti

 Legislators sponsoring SB 5513 – Frockt, Hasegawa, Miloscia, Rolfes, Saldana, Keiser, Wellman, Conway, Chase, Billig, Kuderer, Hunt, McCoy

For more information:Contact Steve Zemke – Director Tax Sanity,,,