For those who haven’t been following the tax fight on the King County Council, you should tune in now for three reasons: The battle between Democrats and Republicans is getting hilariously—and somewhat tragically—absurd, there’s a lot at stake in finding public-safety money, and time is slipping away to find a solution.
The county estimates a $60 million shortfall next year; the largest drain would be $47 million from sheriff’s deputies (70 layoffs), prosecutors (36 layoffs), and county firefighters—with potentially dire and obvious ramifications.
The most recent proposal—the third of late—in the partisan war was pitched by Republican council members Reagan Dunn and Kathy Lambert late yesterday afternoon. It would raise the sales tax by 2/10 of a percent. Fair enough, so far.
Then it gets weird. You see, Republicans don’t like simply raising taxes, so they propose offsetting the sales tax increase by reducing or eliminating voter-approved property tax levies (cutting the parks levy, flood-district levy, and fingerprint ID system levy). Voters would have to ratify it in a vote pitting public safety against flood protection.
"Protecting public safety by cutting roads, voter-approved parks, and flood prevention is not the kind of choice we think voters want to be offered," says Frank Abe, a spokesman for King County Executive Dow Constantine.
And then, on further inspection, the insanity of this proposal really begins to shine.
The property tax cuts would only apply to residents outside city limits.
In other words, people outside incorporated cities (the areas represented by Republican council members) would get a tax break, while people inside the cities would have no tax breaks but would get an added sales tax. And that sales tax would go largely to police and fire services outside the city—in places that rely on the county for public safety—so city residents would be accepting a tax hike to subsidize rural folk.
“Give me a break,” says Bob Ferguson, chair of the county council and representative of northeast Seattle. “You are proposing a tax break for your constituents and asking my constituents to foot the bill for your constituents. What kind of a deal is that?”
Ferguson calls the deal a “nonstarter.”
County council member Larry Phillips, who represents northwest Seattle, adds, “We already pay a pretty penny for our [Seattle police] officers and then we would be raising our taxes to pay for sheriffs officers in unincorporated King County.”
The reason this measure exists at all is because Republicans have been called on the carpet to produce some kind of measure (although I don’t think anyone was expecting something as plainly absurd as this) after killing other proposals. Republicans formed a bloc to shoot down two previous tax measures, and then when questions arose about what they were for—not just the taxes they were against—they produced this rotten egg.
What's frustrating in all of this is the obvious stubbornness that Lambert and Dunn are exhibiting here. Democrats made concessions by reducing the size of a previously proposed sales tax and including a sunset provision. But Republicans have rejected those sensible measures and—despite claims that they want to find a bipartisan solution—now all they can produce is an idea that is so absurd it's a joke.
But all is not lost.
The previous attempts to ask voters for a tax hike—see here and here—went down in part because the council lacked a six-vote majority to push the measures through at the last minute for the August ballot. But now Phillips predicts the council may consider an across-the-board sales tax hike (also 2/10 of a percent), which would only need five votes if the council acts by July 26 to make the fall ballot. Voters would be able to approve or reject it in November.
Lambert and Dunn did not respond to requests to comment.