US Supreme Court rejects challenge to Washington state tax as repeal referendum advances

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By Carina

The U.S. Supreme Court has made a significant decision regarding Washington state’s controversial capital gains tax. 

The court recently refused to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of this tax, which the state’s supreme court had upheld. This development has far-reaching implications for both taxpayers and lawmakers in the state.

Initiative to repeal capital gains tax acquires momentum

The Supreme Court’s decision coincided with another significant development in Washington state. 

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On January 23, Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs certified that a petition for an initiative to repeal the capital gains tax had garnered enough voter signatures to qualify for the state ballot. 

However, this initiative must go before the Washington State Legislature before appearing on the ballot during the upcoming November 5 election.

This decision also follows Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, announcing his move from Washington to Florida a couple of months ago. 

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Jeff Bezos moves to Florida in strategic relocation and tax-saving efforts 

Bezos cited various reasons for his relocation, including being closer to his parents and his space exploration company, Blue Origin. 

By selling approximately $15.7 billion worth of Amazon stock before the new capital gains tax went into effect, Bezos managed to save over $1 billion in taxes, according to Marcum LLP, a national accounting and advisory services firm. 

Bezos’ move to Florida ensures that his future stock sales won’t be subject to Washington’s capital gains tax, leading to substantial tax savings.

Washington differs from most states because it has no income tax on individuals or corporations. 

Concerns over capital gains tax and Supreme Court’s decision

However, introducing the capital gains tax, which applies extraterritorially, has raised concerns among limited-government advocates. 

They fear that this tax could pave the way for a graduated income tax in the state. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to deny a review of Quinn v. Washington on January 16 was a pivotal moment. 

This decision, with no dissents from the justices, left the challenge to the capital gains tax unresolved. 

The court did not explain its decision, but it’s worth noting that at least four of the nine justices must vote to grant a petition for a case to be heard.

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Proponents and critics of Washington’s capital gains tax

Proponents of the capital gains tax, including Washington Governor Jay Inslee, argue that it makes the state’s tax system fairer. 

They contend that Washington’s tax system has been economically regressive, disproportionately burdening low-income residents. 

The tax, which imposes a 7 percent rate on capital gains above $250,000, was enacted in 2021 and took effect on January 1, 2022. The state’s constitution requires that property and income taxes be assessed uniformly.

In August 2023, the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation, a good-government group and think tank, filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the Washington Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the capital gains tax. 

Legal challenges and commerce clause: Capital gains tax debate

The Freedom Foundation argued that the tax violates the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, which reserves the power to regulate interstate commerce for Congress, not states. 

Their argument was based on the tax’s application to Washington residents, even for assets held in other states, potentially leading to double taxation.

The denial of the petition for certiorari by the U.S. Supreme Court disappointed advocates of tax reform in Washington. 

They had hoped for a favorable outcome that could have set a precedent regarding the taxation of assets held in other states. 

Washington’s capital gains tax and Initiative 2109

Critics fear that the state’s legislature may continue to expand the scope and rate of the tax, potentially eroding the state’s economic competitiveness.

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The fate of Initiative 2109, which seeks to repeal the capital gains tax, remains uncertain. 

The state legislature has several options, including adopting the initiative into law, referring it to the voters for approval or rejection, or placing an alternative proposal on the ballot. 

Uncertain future of Washington’s capital gains tax

The history of Washington voters rejecting income tax proposals, especially those targeting the wealthy, adds an element of uncertainty. 

While the Supreme Court’s decision may have closed one chapter in the capital gains tax saga, legal challenges may arise in the future. 

The tax’s extraterritorial reach could lead to lawsuits if individuals are taxed twice for the same sale in different states.

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