Commentary: Legislators don’t need to address property-tax cap — we already did


Blocking a bad piece of legislation can often be as important as passing a good bill. That’s why Republican senators took a moment to cheer a few months ago when, in the face of intense pressure, our Democrat counterparts dropped their push to clear the way for the largest property tax increase in Washington history.

Senate Bill 5770, initially sponsored by 20 Democratic senators, would have tripled Washington’s long-standing 1% cap on the annual growth of property taxes.

This limit was first imposed by voters in 2001, through Initiative 747. When that was ruled unconstitutional on a technicality in 2007, the state’s Democratic governor and Democrat-controlled Legislature hustled to restore the 1% cap through a bill that easily won support in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Democrats called Senate Bill 5770 “property tax reform.” But once the people were alerted to what the majority was plotting — when so many are struggling financially, partly because of other Democrat policies like cap-and-trade and the mandatory payroll tax for long-term care — they turned up the heat.

The sponsors of SB 5770 responded by withdrawing it from further consideration. Two of the initial sponsors even pulled their names off the bill, which indicates just how unpopular it had become.

I’m bringing this up now because a Vancouver newspaper, The Columbian, recently editorialized about the 1% property tax cap.

“At some point, Washington must address a levy lid that is reducing the services that enhance the quality of life in our communities,” it declared.

The hook for the newspaper’s editorial seems to be a decision by the Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue commissioners to ask voters to approve a property-tax increase higher than 1%. It will be on the ballot in August.

It’s important to note the fire district is doing exactly what the law allows. The 1% cap applies only to “councilmanic” tax increases, meaning those approved by a commission, or council.

Nothing in the law has ever prohibited local governments from exceeding the 1% cap, provided they obtain voter approval. Make your case to the voters, and if a majority sees it as a fair deal, then OK. That’s how democracy works.

Also, I question The Columbian’s assertion that the 1% cap needs to be addressed. It seems to be based primarily on a calculation that over the past decade, prices have on average increased at 3.3% per year — more than the 1% increase that local governments can approve automatically.

This, the newspaper states, “creates a structural deficit that reduces services year after year.”

That sounds like what we heard from the supporters of SB 5770, who claimed local governments are short on revenue and need additional taxing authority.

The trouble is, it could hardly be farther from the truth.

Using numbers collected by the state auditor, Republicans looked into the Democrats’ claims. We found that on average, cities and counties in our state saw their revenues increase 72% and 82%, respectively, between 2012 and 2022.

If local-government entities in Clark County are literally reducing services — or even claiming to be impoverished — because of the 1% cap, The Columbian made no mention of it. But if any of them do want more money, they are free to ask voters to “lift” the levy limit, just as Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue is doing.

The backers of SB 5770 tried to sell the move to a 3% cap as simply being a tool for local government to have. That’s not the full story.

The bill would have empowered local government to take more of your money without asking, or even explaining, while making housing even harder to afford. When property taxes go up, it affects not only property owners but also renters, and hits lower-income people harder.

The Columbian makes a valid connection between local-government functions, like public safety and the quality of life in a community. Still, as the saying goes — when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

To live within their means, families and employers across our state must make decisions about what’s more important. Government should be no different. If a local government truly doesn’t have enough money to maintain important services, the first thing to do is look at what’s being done with the money already being collected.

The good people at the Vancouver newspaper want legislators to address the property-tax limitation. I would argue we just did. A group of lawmakers proposed a change in policy, a public hearing was held, then the proposal was put down when it became obvious the public would not support it. Every year, many other bills meet the same fate.

This was not the first time our Democratic counterparts have tried to do away with the 1% cap. I have to expect it will happen again, maybe as soon as the 2025 session. And as we have in past years, Republicans will propose legislation that offers a different, taxpayer-friendly path for supporting important services. We can 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.