Take a close look to the right at the slightly annotated and redacted receipt for groceries I recently purchased in Seattle. The six two-liter plastic bottles of club soda I bought were hit with the hefty 9.5% sales tax. The four two-liter plastic bottles of seltzer water were not. Both products consisted of unsweetened, unflavored, unsalted water to which carbonation had been artificially added.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out a rational explanation for the differing treatments, other than, perhaps, an error. It looks to me like both products are exempt under current Washington State law. I reached this conclusion after carefully perusing material on the state Department of Revenue website as well as the Washington Administrative Code. The two sources seem to exempt from the sales tax carbonated bottled water that doesn’t contain sweeteners like, say, Coca-Cola.
The tax that might have been wrongfully assessed in this instance amounted to only 68 cents. But in the course of a year I drink a lot of fizzy water. So I might pursue this further.
Still, tax policy says a lot about a society and its values–and, often, the difficulty in being fair. That’s because it takes a certain amount of loot to run governments, and that burden can be apportioned in any number of ways. Washington State is one of seven states that doesn’t have a state income tax. Even though income taxes are considered the fairest and easiest to collect, Washington voters in 2010 rejected a ballot measure to impose a tax on the state’s richest 1%. They handed a huge gift to the Bill Gates types hereabouts–maybe, I suppose, hoping some day to be in his net worth bracket.
So in addition to a lot of strange ticky-tacky taxes, Washington State relies upon the sales tax. Big time. The 9.5% total sales tax bite in Seattle is tied with Chicago for the country’s highest big-city rate. A sales tax falls disproportionately upon lower income levels even if, as is the case in most states, including Washington, foodstuffs and prescriptions are generally exempt. Washington State is considered to have the least progressive tax structure in the country. That means poor folks pay a lot higher percentage of their income in state taxes than do the rich.
And maybe on medical care, too. In that same 2010 balloting, Washington voters opted overwhelmingly to remove the sales tax on candy and gum. Interesting tax priorities hereabouts.
Meanwhile, time for another swig.