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What do Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Washington state Lutherans have in common?

They both support I-1098, a November ballot initiative to redress the state’s regressive tax system.

“Washington State has one of the most regressive tax systems in the United States, a system that increasingly shifts payment for state services onto low and middle income families,” according to the Lutheran Public Policy Office of Washington (LPPO). “I-1098 will help make Washington’s tax structure more progressive while helping to ensure funding for vital social services.”

LPPO and the Washington Association of Churches formed the Religious Coalition for Tax Reform (RCTR) to support I-1098.

In a statement titled “Why Faith Leaders Support Initiative 1098,” RCTR said, “As people of faith we are called to protect the vulnerable, to change systems that are unjust, and to create a world in which everyone is treated fairly and equitably. Washington State’s tax system fails on all of these values.”

The statement said: “We have a chance right now to put our faith values into practice. After decades of inaction – as our state falls further and further behind in our ability to fund core priorities – Bill Gates Sr. and many other faith and civic leaders are stepping forward to help lead a campaign to enact real tax reform in Washington State.”

The RCTR declaration appealed to people of faith: “We believe the quote attributed to Jesus some 2000 years ago ‘to whom much is given much is required’ is very applicable to our tax system.”

Bishops in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and Episcopal Church signed the document. Other signatories included clergy from the United Methodist, United Church of Christ, American Baptist, Unitarian Universalist and Jewish traditions.

Chris Boeger, bishop of the Northwest Washington Synod of the ELCA, noted that the denomination’s social statement on economic life “directs the members of the ELCA to correct the regressive tax system in our state so that people are taxed progressively in relation to their ability to pay.”

Boeger added, “[W]e have a definite call to address the regressive tax structure of our state.”

Another signatory, Marcia Patton, executive minister for the Evergreen Association of American Baptist Churches, told EthicsDaily.com in an e-mail: “Washington State has a very regressive tax rate that puts a great burden on the poor. It needs to change. This is a great first step toward that change.”

The RCTR statement said the ballot initiative would make the tax code fairer and would provide more than $1 billion each year for education and health priorities.

Other estimates run close to $2 billion in additional revenue.

If passed, the ballot initiative would create an income tax on the wealthiest citizens in the state. Individuals with incomes exceeding $200,000 (or couples above $400,000) would have a 5 percent tax rate, while individuals with incomes above $500,000 (or couples above $1 million) would have a 9 percent tax rate. Property taxes would be reduced by 20 percent and 118,000 businesses would be exempt from business-and-occupation taxes.

Washington state abolished the income tax in 1933. Citizens rebuffed income-tax initiatives four times in some 70 years, said the Seattle Times.

“It is unfair to place a heavy, heavy tax burden on the poor and a light burden on the rich,” said Don Maier, retired bishop of the Northwest Washington Synod of the ELCA, according to SeattlePI.com, the website of the former Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper, which went online-only in March 2009.

SeattlePI.com reported that Washington state’s Catholic bishops had not taken a position on the ballot initiative.

The article did quote Michael Ramos, a Catholic and executive director for the Church Council of Greater Seattle, who said, “It’s a moral issue, it’s a faith issue, it’s the community coming together for the common good.”

Washington state’s faith leaders are playing a similar role in advocating for tax justice as did their neighboring clergy to the south. Oregonian faith leaders supported twin ballot measures earlier this year that increased taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents and raised slightly the tax rate on corporations.

The father of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Bill Gates Sr., has appeared in several videos supporting the Yes on 1098 campaign.

Microsoft chairman Steve Ballmer and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos both gave $100,000 to defeat the ballot initiative.

Editor’s Note: To learn more about EthicsDaily.com’s documentary on faith and taxes, “Sacred Texts, Social Duty,” click here.

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