FILE — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

(The Center Square) – Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee says he would support a delay in the implementation of a new payroll tax to fund the long-term care benefit known as “WA Cares.”

But he believes he doesn’t have the authority to halt the program using the COVID-19 emergency powers he has exercised for more than 600 days now.

“I do not have the authority to make some unilateral decision like that,” Inslee said during Thursday’s regularly scheduled news conference. “It would take some action by the legislature. But I am sensitive – and empathetic – to the need for some changes in this bill, and so I am talking to legislators about other approaches that can allow them to pause, if you will, some of the actions to allow them to make refinements to the bill.”

On Wednesday, Democratic leaders in the state Senate sent Inslee a letter urging him to delay implementation of the WA Cares program for one year.

“This delay will allow the legislature time during the 2022 legislative session to engage the public in a transparent, deliberative process to address concerns that have been raised with the WA Cares Fund without being limited by a premium assessment that is already in progress,” the legislators wrote.

The letter writers indicate their continued support of the WA Cares program, but note “now is not the time to add a payroll deduction” because of the ongoing pandemic.

“We know Washingtonians face challenges with housing, childcare and other costs during this recovery and we do not want to add another at this difficult time,” the letter states.

While Inslee did not rule out the possibility of a special session of the legislature before January to halt implementation of the tax, he said his legal team is looking into options. The tax, which is withheld by employers, is not due to the state until April, meaning that timeframe “could give the legislature time to make these refinements,” he said.

Republican state House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox said it was interesting that some Democrats asked Inslee to exercise his power in this way, noting the requested delay in implementing the new payroll tax would take pressure off the legislature until after next year’s midterm elections.

He called it a “D-on-D conflict”  that Inslee doesn’t want to be part of.

“It would be irrational for the governor to get into the middle of a tax fight – delaying a tax,” he said.

Concerns that too many people would pay into the tax but never receive benefits, as well as concerns over the inability of some people to take part in this year’s one-time opt out, have dogged the program.

Last month, opponents of the tax filed a class action lawsuit in federal court seeking to stop the January start of the payroll premiums – 58 cents per $100 of salary – for most state employees.

These are problems Democrats have known about, according to Wilcox.

“We have had all kinds of complaints, from Democrats,” he said.

As for one of the potential fixes – delaying the collection of the tax until April – Wilcox was not impressed.

“That’s not a great solution,” he said, characterizing that as putting too much pressure on employers in terms of enforcement.

“They collect the tax and then what?” he asked.

State Democrats, from Wilcox’s point of view, have only themselves to blame for this taxing situation.

“There are no Republican fingerprints on this,” he said, as Democrats control both chambers of the state legislature. “They can’t blame anybody.”

“That’s the problem with single-party rule,” Wilcox said. “They decided in the caucus room.”

Staff Reporter

Brett Davis reports on Washington state government for The Center Square. He previously worked for public policy organizations the Freedom Foundation and Washington Farm Bureau, as well as various community newspapers.