Lawmakers toil in playing the game of taxpayer relief

Property tax, car tabs remain a burden

  • Saturday, March 17, 2018 9:15am
  • Opinion

One of the bigger surprises of the just-completed legislative session occurred in the final hours when a Democrat-sponsored bill cutting the state property tax rate passed and nearly every Republican voted against it.

Not long after achieving this success, the same Democratic lawmakers fumbled big time by failing to provide even the littlest of savings for payers of Sound Transit car tabs.

Both matters are likely to be the subject of campaign fliers and commercials this fall. Much of the context, however, will be missing given the shortage of space on a mailer and time in a 30-second spot.

Let’s review what happened, starting with why members of the Grand Old Party opposed the one-time reduction in the property tax rate that they and Democrats and Gov. Jay Inslee hiked in 2017.

Republicans really weren’t against lowering the tax. They actually introduced bills to roll back the entire increase but as the minority party in the Senate and the House, the idea naturally never got seriously considered.

Democrats batted around several ideas as they assessed the best way to parlay an unexpected surge in revenue from the state’s economic boom into a break for property owners in 2019.

They had somewhat of a challenge. By law, most of the extraordinary revenue to be generated by the economy must be deposited in the state’s rainy day fund for emergency uses. Withdrawals require a supermajority vote, which would mean getting a few Republican votes to make that happen.

That didn’t present a huge problem last year when more than two-thirds of lawmakers shifted a ton of money from this same budget stabilization account into the general fund to cover public school costs.

But Democrats didn’t follow the same course this year. They designed a new budgetary path in which money bound for the emergency reserves was snagged before getting there and instead used to cover the cost of the property tax cut. Since the rainy day fund was not tapped, a supermajority vote was not required.

Republicans called the maneuver crafty, devious and constitutionally-challenged. They worried aloud it would leave the state less prepared for emergencies. Democrats countered that the fund isn’t going to be any worse off as a result.

Still, no Republican in the Senate and fewer than a dozen in the House voted for the legislation. They can expect to face questions about their votes this fall.

Now, to the car tabs, where some Democratic leaders are claiming Republicans doomed the effort to achieve a little savings.

That’s not the case.

What happened is Democrats didn’t find common ground with the same ease they did blazing that trail around the rainy day fund.

House and Senate Democrats agreed on forcing Sound Transit to change how it calculates the motor vehicle excise tax, which would result in some savings to owners of many of the 2.5 million vehicles in Sound Transit’s taxing district.

But Senate Democrats insisted that the loss of car tab revenue be offset in some manner, otherwise Sound Transit would lack financial resources to carry out promised projects in Snohomish and Pierce counties on time.

House Democrats disagreed with the premise and rejected the means of keeping Sound Transit financially whole that had been suggested by their Senate friends.

By the time they enjoyed a Kumbaya moment, only a handful of hours remained in the 60-day session and Republicans had amendments they wanted to debate, which is kind of how the legislative game works.

A few hours proved more than enough time for Democrats to complete debates and votes on bills to exempt lawmakers from the state Public Records Act and reform the state’s use of deadly force law. Not enough, however, in their minds to deal with car tabs.

Democrats should anticipate questions about their inaction this fall.

Before any queries come and campaign claims fly on these subjects, one can expect incumbents in both parties will be getting their stories together on what turned out to be two of the session’s bigger surprises.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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