Legislature: Bill would give cities and counties right to seek more taxes

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

By DON JENKINS, Columbian staff writer

OLYMPIA, WA- State lawmakers, saddled with a deficit but showing little heart for raising taxes, may tell cash-strapped counties and cities to seek money directly from voters.

A House bill introduced Tuesday would authorize county commissions and city councils to place sales tax and property tax hikes on the ballot. Local governments currently have only limited power to raise taxes.

County and city associations back House Bill 2098, even though the measure would force local governments to ask for taxpayer support and could create vastly different levels of service between jurisdictions.

"I don't mind going out and asking voters to support our services," Clark County Commissioner Craig Pridemore said. "I think voters are savvy and can decide what they want and don't want."

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bill Grant, D-Walla Walla, would:

Allow voters to raise property taxes by as much as 35 cents per $1,000 assessed value, or $52.50 on a $150,000 house, to support county and city services.

Also let voters increase the sales tax by as much as 0.2 percent, or 2 cents per $10 purchase. Currently, the sales tax in Vancouver is 7.7 percent, or 77 cents per $10 purchase.

Give counties the power that cities already have to tax utilities, such as water, energy and telecommunications.

The state has been providing local governments with a pool of money to replace funds they lost after voters approved Initiative 695. The pool will run dry in the next biennium.

"I think it's fair to say none of our members are real thrilled by having to accept the burden of raising taxes," said Bill Vogler, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties. "But they're realistic enough to know that they're not going be to given any money by a Legislature facing a $2.4 billion deficit."

Vancouver Democrat Bill Fromhold, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, agreed that counties and cities can't expect help from the state's general fund.

"I would say that at this stage, the chances are pretty slim," he said.

HB 2098 could run into opposition from education lobbyists.

The plan wouldn't take away money currently going to education, but it does allow counties and cities to collect more property taxes by reducing the lid on the state school levy from $3.60 to $3.25per $1,000 assessed valuation. The rate is currently less than $3.

Fromhold said he expects "significant resistance by K-12 interests."

Vancouver supports the bill, but the issue is not a top priority for the city for this session, lobbyist Mark Brown said.

Pridemore said the county will have to ask voters for money someday -- maybe in two years when the county plans its 2005-07 budget.

Help from the lottery?

Also this week, Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Carrolls, introduced House Bill 2080 calling for an estimated $20 million in lottery funds to be distributed over the next two years this way: 40 percent to city police, 40 percent to county law enforcement and 20 percent to drug courts.

"It doesn't go very far, but it goes a lot farther than zero," Orcutt said.

Orcutt made the same proposal last year when the Legislature agreed to join the 10-state Mega Millions lottery. But lawmakers rejected the idea.

"I'm not terribly hopeful it will move, but it needs to be out there for debate," Orcutt said. "A lot of people are saying, 'We need a funding source,' and I'm offering one."

Vogler credited Orcutt with looking for money. "Anybody who introduces a bill that says, 'We want to help,' we like."

Don Jenkins reports on the Legislature and state government. He can be reached in The Columbian's Olympia bureau at 360-586-2437 or via e-mail at don.jenkinscolumbian.com.



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