After election, state lawmakers move to raise local property taxes

About the Author
Liv Finne
Director, Center for Education

With the 2016 election over, some state lawmakers are considering a bill to break a commitment they made to the public six years ago not to raise local property taxes.  The lawmakers want to cancel a promised return to lower tax rates planned for January 1, 2018.

In 2010 lawmakers passed temporary legislation, SHB 2893, to allow a short-term increase in local property taxes for schools. The bill weakened homeowner protections by allowing local officials to increase taxes from a district’s levy lid of 24 percent to 28 percent, representing a 16 percent increase in the tax burden placed on homeowners and business owners.  Other changes in the temporary legislation allowed district officials to seek more levy money than in the past.

Legislative leaders stressed that the tax increase was temporary, and that the tax burden would return to normal levels starting January 1, 2018. 

During floor debate, urging passage of SHB 2893, Rep. Pat Sullivan (D-Kent) said: “This is just one piece, a temporary piece…” (February 13, 2010, at time mark 28:53):



During floor debate, urging passage of SBH 2893, Rep. Marcie Maxwell (D-Renton) said: “I know there is some controversy with [this bill]. I know that it is a temporary measure.…” (February 13, 2010, at time mark 44:43):



During floor debate, urging passage of SHB 2893, Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Normandy Park) told the public the bill is a “temporary measure” (February 13, 2010, at time mark 1:04:36):




Rep. Marko Liias (D-Edmonds) similarly urged passage, telling the public the bill is on a “temporary basis” (February 13, 2010, at time mark 1:07:49):



A few weeks later, Senate leaders promised property owners that taxes would return to normal levels starting on January 1, 2018: 

Senator Rosemary McAuliffe, (D-Bothell) chair of the Senate Education Committee which drafted the bill, said: “This is a temporary piece of legislation that gives them [school districts] a bridge…” (March 11, 2010, at time mark 53:49):



When Governor Christine Gregoire signed the bill she repeated the promise that taxes would return to normal levels on January 1, 2018, saying:

…This bill [is] for the period 2011 to 2017.  It increases school district levy lids by four percentage points….” (March 29, 2010 at time mark 35:11).



As a further commitment to the public, lawmakers described the temporary nature of their tax increase in the title of the bill, which provides that their tax increase will expire on January 1, 2018:

SHB 2893 bill title, “Levies by school districts—Maximum dollar amount for maintenance and operation support---Restrictions---Maximum levy percentage---Levy reduction funds—Rules (Effective until January 1, 2018.)"

The text of the law provides that after 2017 levy lids will return to the twenty-four percent lid:

“A district's maximum levy percentage shall be twenty-four percent in 2010 and twenty-eight percent in 2011 through 2017 and twenty-four percent every year thereafter."

School officials fail to prepare

School district administrators are now pushing hard to urge lawmakers to cancel the original tax-relief policy and enact a permanent tax increase starting January 2018.  The result would be a permanent reduction in household incomes across the state.

Administrators and union executives say they face a so-called “levy cliff.” They are demanding that lawmakers go back on their public commitment, even though the temporary policy was announced by lawmakers of both parties and the governor, and even though the promised end-date was included in the title of the bill. 

The so-called “levy cliff” has existed since lawmakers passed the bill in 2010 and is an intended part of the legislation.  Returning local levy rates to normal is not a surprise; it is part of the original promise. 

Local school administrators have known about the planned return to normal tax rates for six years but some have failed to plan.  Rather than accepting accountability, they want to shift the problem onto families in their communities, and for state lawmakers to bear the criticism for breaking their promise, while they enjoy an increase in public money for their own budgets.

WEA union profits for school spending

The WEA union is adamant about getting a “levy cliff” tax increase. Executives at the powerful union profit from school spending because Washington is not a right to work state. Under mandatory union rules teachers must pay dues and fees or be fired. 

The public responded in good faith to lawmakers’ promises, and approved what they thought would be a temporary increase in local property taxes.  Working people in Washington now provide the state with a record level of money for public schools, over $18 billion per budget, a 34 percent increase in four years.

Education spending now at historic highs

Total per-student spending is at historic highs, at nearly $13,000 per student, more than tuition at many private schools.  Yet mismanagement and failure to plan means education interests constantly ask people for more.  Yet, while benefiting from the money they gain through higher taxes, union executives and school administrators seldom say “thank you.”

Conclusion – maintaining public trust

Homeowners across the state will likely be upset as they learn state lawmakers are working soon after an election to a break a clear promise made to the public.  Schools depend on the public’s good will to provide the taxes that fund education opportunities for all children.  Breaking a legislative promise erodes public trust, and contributes to the widespread perception that the system is rigged because elected officials are being deceptive.

The policy solution is simple.  Lawmakers should allow local property rates to return to normal on January 1, 2018, as they planned from the beginning. 

Keeping the promise to return to normal tax rates would assure the public that lawmakers and Governor Gregoire were not lying when they passed the temporary bill.  It would also improve the public’s confidence in local school officials, by encouraging them to plan responsibly for funding changes they have known about for six years.








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