Opinion

Legislature considers levy limit changes | Bob Meadows

Browsing through the list of bills our state representatives are considering can provide a little insight into their wishes regarding taxes and spending.

A couple of examples indicate that some of them wish to change the limits on taxes and tax increases that now exist.

That’s not surprising, but the way they propose to change things raises questions about their understanding of the impacts.

Our regular property taxes have long been limited to annual increases of 1 percent plus the amount generated by new construction, unless voters approve bigger increases.

One effect has been to increase the competition among programs for funding that doesn’t grow at the previous rate of more than 6 percent each year.

To ease this competition for one set of programs, Senate Bill 6452 would move the levy for the veterans’ assistance program out of the county’s general levy and make it a stand-alone levy which can rise each year by the rate of inflation rather than 1 percent.

With such a change, the veterans’ assistance program would not compete directly with the county’s general fund programs, but would continue to compete with levies that must fit within the constitutional limit on total regular property taxes.

Since there is a limit on total regular levies, no increase for one purpose can be authorized without creating the possibility that either the new levy or other levies must be reduced at some point.

So long as the state school tax is kept well below its maximum statutory rate, other levies for emergency medical services, county ferry districts, park districts, etc., can be added to the mix as they have been.

But what happens when assessed values fall or the state school tax is increased?  Some other levies have to be reduced to make room.

The state school tax probably ought to be increased to reduce reliance on excess levies approved by school district voters, but when other levies would be affected it may be harder to do so.

Choosing between assistance to indigent veterans and other county programs is difficult, but is anyone considering that there is also a choice to be made between the state school tax and other levies?

Another example is Senate Bill 6582 which would allow, among other things, the county to increase its road levy each year by 3 percent plus new construction rather than 1 percent.

Granting that the 1 percent limit on annual increases makes the need for voter-approved lid lifts inevitable, it may be true that the 1 percent limit factor ought to be changed.

But why change it for two levies and not all?  If the levy for veterans’ assistance and the county road levy can rise faster than 1 percent without voter approval, there may come a time when other levies are crowded out.

Staying within the constitutional limit on the aggregate regular levy amount requires competition among the programs that are funded by property taxes.

Picking one or two levies and giving them an advantage in this competition ought to be done after considering whether they should have an advantage.

If they rise at a faster rate simply because they were treated differently without considering the possible consequences, it would be harder when the squeeze comes to reduce them and fund a higher priority.

It seems better to have all regular levies continue under the same limit on annual increases, so changing priorities can be accommodated each year.

It seems unwise to act as though new stand-alone levies can be added or higher limits on annual increases for some levies can be authorized without risking a future in which choices are even harder to make.

Especially since the relatively low state school tax is a major reason that any new levy authority or levy increase is possible without hitting the constitutional limit, our legislators ought to take a step back and study the whole situation.

In the competition for property tax funding, public schools are supposed to be our highest priority — and we aren’t supposed to be relying so much on local excess levies rather than the state school tax.

 

Bob Meadows is a Port Orchard resident.

 

 

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