By Tim Eyman
Property taxes don’t increase as fast as they used to.
Most people think that’s a good thing. But a lot of powerful governments, lobbyists and special interest groups think it’s bad. So they’re in Olympia right now trying to convince the Legislature to make it easier for state and local governments to jack up property taxes without a vote of the people.
Some background: In the 1990s, the law allowed each government to increase regular property tax levies up to 6 percent per year. So state government got 6 percent increases, counties 6 percent, cities 6 percent, ports 6 percent, fire/library/cemetery/park/mosquito districts 6 percent each. With property taxes skyrocketing, we believed that voters wanted more control of property tax increases.
So we sponsored Initiative 747 in 2001, which limited each government’s regular property tax levy to 1 percent per year and required voter approval for anything higher. And even though we were radically outspent by a well-organized opposition, voters in 37 of 39 counties, including Snohomish, approved the initiative with a whopping 58 percent yes vote. It was a huge victory for taxpayers.
Six years later, in a completely goofy 5-4 ruling, the state Supreme Court said voters were “misled” into voting for the initiative’s property tax limit and struck it down.
Gov. Chris Gregoire quickly called a special session to reinstate the 1 percent limit. Speaker Frank Chopp from Seattle said he would “proudly support” reinstating the cap. Very liberal legislator Brendan Williams from Olympia said: “We have a compact with voters. When voters legislate, we need to respect their work too.”
Gregoire said, “I think the voters said very clearly what they wanted. My motivation is what the voters had to say. And the voters said they’re fearful about whether they’re going to be able to keep their homes. I think it is exactly what the voters want to have done.” Think about that: She heard from voters fearful of losing their homes before the Great Recession — no doubt those fears are even greater today.
In December of 2007, 91 percent of House members and 81 percent of state senators voted yes. And our Democratic governor signed it into law.
So there’s been an overwhelming vote of the people and an even broader legislative vote to make the current property tax limit the law. I highlight this history so that readers can evaluate how we got here (The Herald’s April 9 editorial, “1 percent property tax cap is starving counties,” was riddled with errors and omissions).
In my view, there are numerous reasons the Legislature should not betray taxpayers by taking away this proven protection.
First, all the arguments being made against it now were made during the 2001 campaign, and voters rejected those arguments and overwhelmingly approved the initiative. And these same arguments were made again during the 2007 special session and the Democratic-controlled House, Senate and governor rejected them and reinstated it by an even wider margin.
It’s important to know that governments get property taxes from multiple sources. Every year, they get property tax revenue from the 1 percent, new construction, improvements, annexations, banked capacity, real estate excise taxes, valuation jumps and voter-approved levies. When added together, property taxes to government consistently rise faster than inflation.
But even that isn’t the whole story. Governments get revenue not just from property taxes, but from many other taxes and fees as well. For example, overall revenue for King County’s general fund grew 8 percent this year even with the 1 percent limit in place. The fact is governments are taking away plenty of money from the taxpayers. And if any of them want more, all they have to do is ask the voters’ permission.
House Bill 1764 would get rid of that voter approval requirement, allowing governments to unilaterally increase levies up to 5 percent per year. So instead of voters deciding, it’ll be up to politicians. Voters don’t want that. Even Republicans John Koster and Terry Nealey, who originally co-sponsored HB 1764, don’t support the bill anymore — only Democrats support it now.
If powerful governments and special interest groups are successful this year and take away the current property tax limit, it’ll be bad for taxpayers. But I believe it’ll be even worse for governments. Why? Because the current limit is a gift compared to what the taxpayers really want: across-the-board property tax reductions. Property taxes continue to be a huge burden for struggling working families. Take away the current limit and property taxes will skyrocket like they used to. And if that happens, governments will inevitably face a tax revolt and a rebellious electorate who will enthusiastically embrace a California-style Proposition 13 initiative that cuts-and-caps property taxes. Governments should consider themselves lucky that the current limit is in place.
I’m tired, and voters are tired, of governments’ incessant whining about this proven, effective, flexible property tax limit. It has protected taxpayers for 16 years and enjoys broad public support. Legislators in Olympia should not take it away.
Tim Eyman was a co-sponsor of Initiative 747. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.