Tax relief, gun control, health care and public transportation.
Just a few of the many things that were foremost on many people’s minds as local lawmakers paid a mid-legislative-session visit to Kent last Saturday.
Money matters – taxes, mostly – popped up from the outset at the 47th District town hall meeting, where residents filled the banquet hall at the Golden Steer Steak N’ Rib House, bringing more questions than the legislative guests could answer during the 90-minute discussion.
Concerned and cost-conscious residents had issues with bills, their own, especially at a time when King County homeowners will be paying higher state property taxes this year to help fund public education.
State lawmakers struck a deal last summer to buoy statewide property taxes to help pay for about $7 billion in investments in public education over the next four years. That’s in response to the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary ruling, which said the state was failing to meet its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education.
County homeowners pay among the highest property taxes in the country, and tax bills have grown rapidly as property values continue to soar.
The district’s legislators – Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, and Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, and Mark Hargrove, R-Covington – admit they feel their constituents’ pocketbook pain and vow to find some semblance of tax relief before the legislative sessions ends March 8.
A big boost in the state’s revenue forecast has both party leaders in Olympia promising property tax relief.
Since the last revenue forecast in November, overall state revenues increased by nearly $628 million for the current two-year budget that ends mid-2019, putting it at nearly $45 billion, the Office of Financial Management reported last week.
Sullivan said he plans to propose legislation, perhaps as soon as this week, that offers property tax relief over the next two years.
“We want to make sure that we are doing what we can,” Sullivan told the crowd. “We need to fund our schools, not just because of the constitution, but because we need our kids to be the next saviors of our planet, the next engineers, doctors, lawyers, whatever they are. But we also have to be really cognizant about making sure that people can afford to stay in their homes.”
Hargrove added: “In discussions I’ve heard we could take about half of that ($628 million) and keep our property taxes from going up this year, so that’s a possibility. … It’s one option I would like to see happen.”
Fain said he would be “surprised if we don’t come out of the session with some form of property tax reduction.”
All of which is good news to local taxpayers who are tired of footing the bill for state projects, notably Sound Transit 3, a $54 billion regional light expansion package that regional voters approved in 2016. But neither Hargrove, Fain nor Sullivan supported the massive measure.
High car-tab renewals are helping to foot the ST3’s bill. And that bill to taxpayers comes at a bad time when property taxes come due this year, lawmakers said.
“What you’re seeing right now is you’re getting hit twice this year, one, in order for us to deal with schools, which was our constitutional obligation, and we had to step up to that,” Sullivan said. “At the same time, you’re seeing the Sound Transit bill happening. And that’s a double hit. I know for a family on a fixed income or people who are barely scraping by, boy, that makes it very difficult.”
Lawmakers also are trying to bring car-tab fee relief this season, pointing to a flawed vehicle valuation formula that needs to be fixed.
As lawmakers explained, a key component to their property tax reform has been overshadowed. Beginning in 2019 the Legislature capped local maintenance and operations levies at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value, which will lead to a tax reduction in Auburn, Kent, Federal Way, Covington and other South King Community communities starting next year.
The 2017 local levy rates for local schools would all go down to a maximum of $1.50, meaning a tax cut, even after including the increased state rate, lawmakers said.
The actual dollar amount will vary depending on future home valuations, Fain said, but if the median value home in Auburn increased by 5 percent in 2019, as projected by budget staff, the owner of a median value home in Auburn would still see a $200 tax cut over what they paid in 2017. This would be carried out beyond 2019 into 2020 and 2021, Fain explained.
As gun violence and mass shootings continue to haunt the country and local communities, many state lawmakers agree that the problem is not exclusively a gun issue but a mental health one.
Sullivan, Fain and Hargrove have suggested that lawmakers focus more on comprehensive mental health bills than gun regulations.
More than 10 firearm bills have been introduced in the current session. Four still have a chance to become law.
“Washington is one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to mental health. There is no investments. I don’t stand up here proudly saying that,” Sullivan said.
Added Hargrove: “We, as the people, need to step up and fix ourselves. … We need to make our society better. That’s what we need to do.”
Instead of throwing money at a “poorly run” Western State Hospital, the state should invest in mental health building facilities that better serve communities, “especially when it comes to our youth,” Fain said.
Sullivan added that those investments should also go to more training in helping school officials recognize family issues involving troubled youth, and to improve school building security and those prone in other public places.
Lawmakers hope to see those investments reflected in the upcoming budget.
Crises in the streets
As homelessness and the opioid-heroine epidemic grows, lawmakers hope the state, county and city leaders can forge stronger relationships to collaborate and find ways to stem the epidemic. More partnerships and resources, they say, are needed to confront the crises.
“It’s no longer a Seattle problem, it’s our problem,” Sullivan said.