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Rural Republicans: Tim Eyman’s I-747 is choking the life out of our cities and counties

Yesterday, the Senate Committee on State Government held a hearing on legislation that would replace Tim Eyman’s arbitrary cap on property taxes with more reasonable limits tied to drivers of local governments’ costs. The legislation, Senate Bill 5772, is prime sponsored by Senator Jamie Pedersen and cosponsored by Republican Senator Maureen Walsh, among others.

As David Kroman recounted for Crosscut, a number of rural Republican elected officials showed up at the bill’s hearing (watch on TVW) to testify in support of it, including many who admit to having voted in favor of Tim Eyman’s I-747 when it appeared on the ballot just over fifteen years ago. For example:

Kittitas County Commissioner Paul Jewell remarked to the committee, “How difficult it is to appear in support of this bill. We don’t want much of government services and we certainly don’t like talking about tax increases as a rule.” He voted for the cap in 2001.

“I was wrong,” he said.

It’s very refreshing to hear that Republicans like Paul Jewell now understand the destructive ramifications of I-747. For most of the last fifteen years, NPI’s Permanent Defense has maintained a profile of I-747 on its website, under our Dangerous Initiatives section, which discusses the impacts of I-747.

The I-747 opposition campaign warned voters that passage of the initiative would lead to cutbacks in public services. From the voter’s pamphlet statement:

“King and Snohomish County residents are sick of gridlock. I-747 means intersection and county highway improvements won’t get made,” says Snohomish County road crew worker Roger Moller. Klickitat County Fire Commissioner Miland Walling is concerned that “we will be unable to purchase safety equipment for rural firefighters.”

Pierce County library employee Patti Cox says a three- year loss of $1.5 million means “we will have to shorten library hours and cut services like children’s reading hours.”

Yakima County Prosecutor Jeff Sullivan invites “anyone to come look over the budget and suggest which felony crimes I shouldn’t prosecute.”

Sure enough, in the wake of I-747’s passage, cities and especially counties were forced to cut back, to the detriment of all Washingtonians’ well-being.

And in the years since, demand for public services has continued to grow, but cities and counties — particularly in rural Washington — have not been able to keep up because I-747 is slowly choking them to death.

Tim Eyman sneers that any local government that wants to raise property taxes can simply put a proposition on the ballot and get voters to sign off on an increase. But that costs money… money rural counties and cities often do not have.

David Kroman explains:

The city of Rosalia, about 40 miles south of Spokane, brings in $660 dollars a year in property taxes. A good chunk goes to paying the roughly $200 phone bill of city manager Jenna McDonald. They’d like to ask voters for money to help fund roads, but it costs $1,200 just to get a measure on the ballot.

Emphasis is mine.

You won’t hear Tim Eyman admit it, but elections are a public service, too. Elections cost money. It’s not possible to hold an election for free. There are significant costs associated with designing, preparing, printing, and mailing ballots, and then tabulating those ballots when they come back.

How are the leaders of a city like Rosalia supposed to pay for an election to ask its voters for a revenue boost when they can’t afford the costs?

Tim Eyman’s I-747 has been hurting Washington’s communities for a very long time. It needs to be repealed. It ought to have been repealed back in 2007, when Democrats held supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature.

The Supreme Court had just struck down the initiative as unconstitutional and gifted then-Governor Chris Gregoire, then-Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, and Speaker Frank Chopp an opportunity to strike a blow for progressive tax reform.

But instead of replacing I-747 with more progressive property tax policy and implementing a homestead exemption or circuit breaker to make the tax code fairer for middle and low income families, the trio rushed to reinstate I-747 in a one-day November special session… to the great joy and delight of Tim Eyman.

We lobbied fiercely against the move, but our admonitions were ignored. Numerous Democratic legislators promised that they would work on coming up with a viable replacement for I-747 down the road. Those promises were not kept. I-747 has remained in place and has continued to slowly inflict harm, year after year.

Death by a thousand cuts is very painful, and local elected leaders are finding it increasingly hard to deliver public services.

That’s especially true east of the Cascades.

The cosponsors of SB 5772 are an interesting group. All but one of them (Rebecca Saldaña) were serving in the Legislature when I-747 was reinstated ten years ago.

Of the other cosponsors, only one voted against reinstatement — Senator Jamie Pedersen, who at the time was serving in the House. The other four cosponsors — Senators Keiser, Hobbs, Takko, and Walsh — voted for reinstatement.

It is reassuring to see their names on this bill. But the list of cosponsors ought to have been much, much longer. Hopefully that will be the case will be during the next go-around. Heavy lifts such as this often require sustained multiyear organizing.

In addition to getting rid of I-747, the Legislature should work on making property taxes fairer. One way to do this would be through a homestead exemption, which would slightly lift tax obligations on middle and low income families while slightly raising them on wealthy families. NPI research finds broad support for this idea.

In June of 2016, in a statewide poll of Washington voters, we asked:

Do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose legislation that would reduce property taxes for middle and lower income households, while slightly increasing them for wealthy families, with no loss of revenue to public services?

These were the answers:

  • Support: 67%
    • 42% “strongly support” property tax fairness
    • 25% “somewhat support” property tax fairness
  • Oppose: 21%
    • 14% “somewhat oppose” property tax fairness
    • 17% “strongly oppose” property tax fairness
  • 2% answered “not sure”

Our survey of 679 likely Washington State voters was in the field from June 14th-15th, 2016; all respondents participated via landline. The poll had a margin of error of +/- 3.8% at the 95% confidence level.


One Comment

  1. Bob Rench
    Posted February 23rd, 2017 at 8:44 AM | Permalink

    The rapidly escalating cost of housing in our region, for renters and homeowners, is troublesome. My wife and I, both retired and of moderate income, are homeowners who experienced a 60% jump in our King County property tax from 2015 to 2016, following a comparable increase in our property’s assessed value. Our appeal of this assessment increase was denied. We then got a 10% increase the following year.

    Home ownership does have its privileges and we’re grateful for the opportunity of home ownership. We’ve owned this property for over 45 years and our emotional attachment to it is deep. But our property’s increased value will do us no good until we sell, which we have imminent intention of doing. Property taxes are already a major expense for us and the recent large increases have severely strain our budget.

    Where’s the equity in property tax increases of this magnitude? In what other widely assessed tax can an increase of this size occur? If our income tax, sales tax, or gas tax rates jumped 15%, 40%, or 60% in a year, there would be an outcry from those affected, yet there’s scarcely a murmur from those on whom these outrageous increases fall.

    In February 2016 King County Assessor Wilson wrote an article (“Property taxes – is there no limit”) in the Seattle Times, showing his awareness of the issue. His citation of an average 15% jump in Seattle for a median priced home might have been more reflective of my situation, a 60% increase, had he used the increase’s median rather than average. Nonetheless, a 30 – 60% level of increase is not uncommon in my area of Seattle, Leschi.

    While I agree with Mr. Wilson’s conclusion that property taxes and levies aren’t the optimal way to “pay for our municipal needs and wants”; his statement that “there are no easy answers” may not be entirely accurate. Why not tie or limit property tax increases from year to year to the Consumer Price Index? Or, possibly defer cumulative excess increases over time to the sale of the property, in a sense treating the increase in assessed value like unrealized capital gains? There are no doubt other good ideas that don’t inequitably burden low and moderate income home owners and don’t provide the taxing authority with an unearned windfall resulting from market increases.

    Because property taxes accrue to our cities, counties, and state governments, this is an issue that will need to be addressed in a coordinated way by these entities. It’s time for our legislative bodies, from the Seattle City Council to King County Council to the State legislature, to take this issue seriously.

    Let’s agree to hold property tax increases to a moderate, reasonable level, and find the means for accomplishing this. Let’s support housing affordability for all, both renters and homeowners.