For many Washingtonians, the 2023 property tax statements that came in the mail this month produced the same “sticker shock” they’ve felt when buying things like groceries and fuel.
Those who are taken aback by the sharp increases in their property-tax bills need to know majority Democrats at the state Capitol are setting the stage for even higher property taxes. They also have sidelined Republican legislation that would lower the cost of living for both property owners and renters.
It’s no exaggeration to suggest people are being taxed out of their homes. A Seattle television station recently interviewed a woman who had moved from a home she’d owned for more than 30 years. Even though the house was paid off, she said the property-tax bill had become unaffordable after nearly doubling in the past half-dozen years.
A half-dozen years ago is when the Legislature completed a multi-year effort to reform the way our K-12 public schools are funded, following the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling. The reforms included an increase in the state property-tax levy, to end what the justices ruled was an unconstitutional reliance on local levies to support K-12 education.
Republicans, who led the Senate then, insisted on also placing a “lid” on local school levies. The intent was to promote equitable educational opportunities among Washington’s 295 school districts, recognizing how property valuations vary between districts.
The lid was set at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value, which is enough to offer ample local support for schools. It was expected that nearly 75% of Washington property owners would see a property-tax reduction, beyond just an offset of the state-levy increase.
Unfortunately, after regaining control of the Senate, Democrats broke the bipartisan “McCleary promise.” Before the $1.50 levy lid could take full effect, they lifted it to $2.50 per thousand, with an extra twist that favored a few wealthy King County school districts. Suddenly, local enrichment levies could reach up to 67% deeper into property owners’ pockets. On a $500,000 home, that’s another $500.
Democratic fingerprints also can be seen on the property-value side of the tax calculation. When plugging his $4 billion government-housing scheme, Governor Inslee correctly notes Washington’s housing supply hasn’t kept pace with the state’s population. Yet he conveniently fails to mention how Democratic policies have hindered homebuilding for decades, contributing to the short supply that has driven property values up — and brought higher tax bills.
Dealing with Washington’s affordability crisis is a Republican priority, and for a second straight year, we have proposed a thoughtful and effective way to bring property taxes down: simply exempt the first $250,000 of a home’s value from the state property tax. This year’s Senate Bill 5387, filed by Sen. Lynda Wilson of Vancouver, also would offer a renters’ credit.
Democrats countered with their own property-tax reduction — except in classic government-first fashion, SB 5495 proposes a tax rebate instead of a tax exemption. Instead of writing a smaller check to the tax collector, you’d have to apply for the rebate after paying.
While a rebate is better than no relief at all, the Democrats’ approach would be a disaster. Unlike the Republican proposal, it would just happen to also repeal the section of the state constitution that requires taxes to be “uniform” and has historically helped turn back attempts to impose a full-blown income tax in Washington. Losing that defense is the last thing we need.
Now for why property owners should be alarmed. While displaying little concern for the effect of inflation on the average Washington family’s household finances, Democrats seem very worried about the effect of inflation on school finances. Their Senate Bill 5692 and House Bill 1244 would allow an “inflation enhancement” to increase local school levies even more. HB 1244 is just one step away from being placed on the full House’s voting calendar.
Meanwhile, Democrats also have taken aim at the 1% cap on local property-tax growth. It was approved by Washington voters in 2001 as Initiative 747, and reinstated by the Legislature in 2007 after the state Supreme Court overturned I-747. Senate Bill 5618 and House Bill 1670 would inflate the cap, allowing taxing districts to ask for what amounts to a 3% hike instead. HB 1670 came out of the House Finance Committee on Feb. 21.
These proposals would qualify for the legislative designation of “necessary to implement the budget” and therefore remain in play until the session ends April 23. They would let Democrats clear the way for more local property-tax hikes, even though many average Washington families are already having trouble making ends meet.
With a state surplus of at least $6 billion, there are better ways to address the needs of Washington’s school districts and local governments. There should be no talk of new taxes whatsoever. We must do better.
Sen. John Braun, of Centralia, serves the 20th Legislative District, which spans parts of four counties from Yelm to Vancouver. He became Senate Republican leader in 2020.