As I previously reported, the Washington state capital gains tax has had a turbulent ride, commencing with a rough ride through the legislative process where it almost hit disastrous terrain on at least six (6) occasions. Then, it was hit with a lawsuit to strike it down as unconstitutional before Governor Inslee could even sign the legislation into law. Days later, it was sideswiped with a second lawsuit to end its short life.
As I reported on March 2, 2022, the new tax regime took a near lethal blow when Douglas County Superior Court Judge Brian C. Huber struck down the newly enacted Washington state capital gains tax as unconstitutional.
Judge Huber concluded:
ESSB 5096 violates the uniformity and limitation requirements of article VII, sections 1 and 2 of the Washington State Constitution. It violates the uniformity requirement by imposing a 7% tax on an individual's long-term capital gains exceeding $250,000 but imposing zero tax on capital gains below that $250,000 threshold. It violates the limitation requirement because the 7% tax exceeds the 1% maximum annual property tax rate of 1%.
As suspected by many local commentators, the state would not let the tax regime die without a fight. It is now seeking a higher court review of Judge Huber’s ruling, hoping to bring life back into the tax.
On March 25, 2022, Attorney General Robert W. Ferguson filed a notice of appeal. Instead of appealing to the Washington Court of Appeals (the normal course of review), Mr. Ferguson filed a petition requesting the Washington State Supreme Court hear the case.
As previously reported on May 7, June 17 and November 4 of last year, two lawsuits were filed in Douglas County Superior Court in Washington, seeking a declaration that the state’s new capital gains tax is unconstitutional. The court consolidated the cases. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment, along with legal briefs in support of their positions. The lawyers for the State of Washington asked for a judgment that the tax regime meets constitutional muster. On the other hand, the lawyers for the taxpayers that initiated the case sought a judgment that the tax regime is unconstitutional.
As previously reported on May 7 and June 17 of this year, Washington state lawmakers enacted a new capital gains tax, set to go into effect on January 1, 2022, but two lawsuits were initiated to declare the tax unconstitutional. To date, the court cases are continuing their way through the judicial process.
On November 2, 2021, as part of the statewide general elections process, Washington voters were not asked to vote on the new state capital gains tax; rather they were asked for their opinion on the tax.
The specific question posed, as written by the Office of the Attorney General, is as follows:
As I previously reported, on May 4, 2021, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5096 ("SB 5096") into law, creating the state's first capital gains tax. It is set to go into effect on January 1, 2022.
The new law has had a turbulent ride during its infancy. Before Governor Inslee could even sign the bill into law, opponents to the legislation filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of Washington for Douglas County, challenging the new tax regime as a tax on income – a violation of the state’s constitution. The plaintiffs in that case seek to enjoin the taxing authorities from assessing and collecting the tax or otherwise enforcing the new law.
On May 4, 2021, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5096 ("SB 5096") into law, creating a capital gains tax regime in Washington. The bill has had a brief, but colorful journey so far. It appears that the journey is continuing.
Will Washington's capital gains tax be here to stay? At this point, it is anyone's guess.
SB 5096 was originally introduced to the Washington State Senate on January 6, 2021. It was passed by the Senate on March 6, 2021, after a hearing in the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, three readings and some floor amendments. The bill's passage margin in the Senate was narrow, receiving 25 affirmative votes and 24 negative votes.
On April 25, 2021, the Washington State Legislature passed Senate Bill 5096 (SB 5096). The bill was immediately sent to Governor's Inslee's desk for signature. It brings a new tax regime to the state of Washington.
Before we go into the details surrounding the new tax, I have to mention that it was challenged even before the governor had the opportunity to sign it into law. A group of potentially affected taxpayers filed a lawsuit in Douglas County, Washington, to strike down the new law as being unconstitutional. So, it is possible that SB 5096 will never breathe life.
Knowing that the new tax regime is under attack, it is still important to have a good understanding of it in the event it survives the battle.
Larry J. Brant
Larry J. Brant is a Shareholder and the Chair of the Tax & Benefits practice group at Foster Garvey, a law firm based out of the Pacific Northwest, with offices in Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Washington, D.C.; New York, New York, Spokane, Washington; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Beijing, China. Mr. Brant practices in the Portland office. His practice focuses on tax, tax controversy and transactions. Mr. Brant is a past Chair of the Oregon State Bar Taxation Section. He was the long-term Chair of the Oregon Tax Institute, and is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the Portland Tax Forum. Mr. Brant has served as an adjunct professor, teaching corporate taxation, at Northwestern School of Law, Lewis and Clark College. He is an Expert Contributor to Thomson Reuters Checkpoint Catalyst. Mr. Brant is a Fellow in the American College of Tax Counsel. He publishes articles on numerous income tax issues, including Taxation of S Corporations, Reasonable Compensation, Circular 230, Worker Classification, IRC § 1031 Exchanges, Choice of Entity, Entity Tax Classification, and State and Local Taxation. Mr. Brant is a frequent lecturer at local, regional and national tax and business conferences for CPAs and attorneys. He was the 2015 Recipient of the Oregon State Bar Tax Section Award of Merit.