Two approaches to property tax relief

There is a huge difference between promising to take action and actually doing so. The important issue of property tax relief is a good example.

Over the past six months, it’s become increasingly clear that Republicans are eager to tackle this issue, while Democrats merely want to give it lip service.

Flash back to last November when the state Supreme Court threw out Initiative 747 because of a technicality. (I-747 prohibited the state, cities, counties, fire districts and library districts from increasing their regular tax levies by more than 1 percent from the previous year without voter approval. Prior to the initiative’s passage, there was a 6 percent cap.)

There was enormous outcry over the court’s ruling. Public pressure forced Gov. Gregoire and legislative leaders to call in the Legislature for a one-day special session to reinstate this measure.

On Nov. 29, the Legislature restored I-747, preventing taxing jurisdictions from imposing a major property tax hike now or in the future without voters’ consent.

During Senate floor debate on the I-747 restoration bill, my Republican colleagues asked our Democratic counterparts to use the special session to enact other property tax relief measures.

The chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee balked at our request.

Her response: “I’m convening a group and we will come here January 14 ready to act on everything. And that’s my commitment to you. I don’t want us to just snooze because it’s the holidays. We’re going to keep you working. But we will be back and ready to act.”

Furthermore, the Senate Democratic leader said at the time that the I-747 restoration bill would be the starting point for a more in-depth discussion on property tax and possible reform.

But their positive talk in late November didn’t translate into action during the 2008 session.

By late January, the Ways and Means chair said she didn’t plan to act on any of a large number of property tax proposals that emerged since November’s special session.

One of them was Senate Joint Resolution 8226, a bipartisan measure that would have amended the state constitution by providing a phased-in property tax exemption on the first $100,000 of a home’s value.

The “homestead exemption” proposal had a public hearing in Ways and Means but didn’t even receive a committee vote.

Other Republican-sponsored property tax relief proposals would have:

• frozen property values and limited assessed increases (SJR 8224);

• eliminated local governments’ ability to collect “banked capacity” (SB 6248 and SB 6552); and,

• allowed more disabled veterans and seniors to qualify for property tax exemptions by permitting them to deduct, from their allowable income, health care costs like wheelchairs and long-term care insurance premiums (SB 6880).

But these measures were not considered by the Senate majority party.

It was sad and disappointing to see the 2008 session end without passage of any meaningful property tax relief measures.

What did the Democrats do instead? They gave an annual sales tax rebate to those Washington residents who qualify for the federal income tax credit.

Their bill (SB 6809), which became law this year, might be called a rebate, but it requires no evidence of sales taxes paid. It’s a giveaway.

Yet what is basically a gift to low-income people actually is an empty promise, as there is no money for it in this year’s budget, and no promise by Democrat leaders to fund it next year.

The same Senate Democrats who snubbed meaningful property tax relief proposals during the legislative session now are holding Ways and Means Committee meetings around the state to “listen” to citizens on the issue.

This is little more than a ploy to cover the majority party’s failure to keep its promise. It is perfectly clear that citizens want and need property tax relief.

The Legislature could have and should have enacted bills to reduce property taxes and keep them from skyrocketing in the future.

The Ways and Means Committee’s first work session on property taxes was held May 8 in Kennewick.

It soon became clear that this meeting, which I attended, was being used more as a forum to explain how local governments are being hurt by property tax relief than how property owners would benefit from it.

Fortunately, there was time at the end of the work session for citizens to express their concerns with higher property taxes.

If my Senate Democratic counterparts want to continue holding meetings around Washington to discuss property taxes, that is their prerogative.

But I think property owners would be far less cynical if the Democrats actually acted on property tax relief instead of merely talking about it on the public dime.

State Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, serves the 9th Legislative District.

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