As Washington homeowners received their most recent property tax bills, disgraced initiative promoter Tim Eyman couldn’t resist trying to exploit their concerns by announcing his intent to qualify an initiative to the November 2017 ballot that would cut property taxes by twenty-five percent. Like Eyman’s I-1366, which was struck down as unconstitutional last year, its ramifications would be devastating.
Eyman’s Initiative 1550 is really a form of reverse Robin Hoodism – take from poor and middle income families and give to very rich.
Those who own multimillion dollar homes would suddenly see their tax obligations reduced by tens of thousands of dollars. However, if you own a more modest home, say in Kent, you would only save a mere $75 a year.
Eyman wants to make our worst in the nation, upside down tax code even more regressive by gutting the closest thing we have to a progressive revenue source.
But the false allure of Initiative 1550 doesn’t stop there. In King County, it would slash general fund revenues by about $116 million a year.
Although Executive Dow Constantine and Deputy Executive Fred Jarrett have done a great job of promoting efficiencies and cost saving, taking that much money out of the county’s budget would force horrific, draconian cuts – in public health, public safety, transportation, best starts for kids, and aid to refugees and the homeless.
And that Kent homeowner would get whacked twice.
First, that $75 would hardly cover family dinner out at Olive Garden.
Second, vital services that family might depend upon – for their kids in K-12 schools, for keeping their community and environment safe, and providing transportation so people can get to work, school and recreation – would be gutted.
Forced to suddenly cut $116 million out of the budget, that’s the only choice the people of King County would have. Imagine if your household budget was abruptly by 25%. What would you do? What could you do?
And for other communities and counties, it would be even more dire.
Eyman’s I-1550 would also eliminate the personal property tax that businesses pay. This would be devastating to communities like the City of SeaTac. I-1550 would deprive city coffers of $10.4 million annually – 16% of the city’s budget.
And other corporations around the state would reap multimillion dollar tax cuts, too. Indeed, some of the largest corporations in King County would end up paying no property taxes. This is tax revenue that supports vital public services.
And for smaller counties across the state, Eyman’s initiative could well effectively drive them into bankruptcy. More rural counties, dependent upon forestry, fishing and agriculture, would find themselves hard pressed to provide basic law enforcement and fire protection. Schools would be robbed of the resources needed simply to pay teachers to educate our children. Even basic maintenance of critical infrastructure — sewer, water roads — would become impossible.
And who would run those bankrupt counties? Well, not the locally elected commissioners. More likely federal bankruptcy judges in Seattle or Spokane.
For those in rural counties across Washington, it would be a devil’s bargain – get an illusionary property tax cut at the very real risk of being robbed of self governance. For the state’s wealthiest homeowners and corporations, Initiative 1550 would be a windfall. But for everyone else, especially taxpayers in central and eastern Washington, it would be a lose-lose catastrophe.
I understand the raw appeal of an initiative that would cut property taxes to frustrated homeowners trying to survive on modest or fixed incomes. Our tax code is broken and unsustainable. We have become way too reliant on property taxes. Compounding that, King County’s red hot real estate market, that combined with property taxes, makes housing more and more unaffordable.
I’ve talked to far too many seniors and homeowners who are sincerely worried they are being taxed out of their homes. That’s totally unacceptable.
But so is Eyman’s meat axe approach. Eyman’s I-1550 sales pitch creates a false sense of benefit without any consideration of the impacts. Instead of letting Eyman monopolize our public discourse like he’s been allowed to in the past, we need to restart a statewide discussion about modernizing our antiquated tax code.
John Arthur Wilson is the King County Assessor. In addition to serving the people of King County as Assessor and Deputy Assessor, he has contributed to the well-being of Washington State as a public affairs consultant and a journalist.
POSTSCRIPT: One way to actually make property taxes fairer would be to implement a homestead exemption. Last year, an NPI research poll found broad support across Washington for this idea. 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: 31%
- 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.