I’ve made no secret of my disdain for the special session Gov. Gregoire has called for this Thursday to reinstate I-747’s vindictive one-percent cap on regular local levies. From a policy perspective, a hard cap on revenue growth below the rate of inflation is simply irresponsible. From a political perspective, this cowardly and ill advised capitulation not only makes the governor look weak at a time she needs to project strength, but it will make it very difficult for some in the Democratic base to generate the kind of enthusiasm Gregoire might need if Dino Rossi doesn’t stumble. I’m just sayin’.
Of course, the governor doesn’t deserve all the blame, as I doubt she would have called this special session if she didn’t believe she had the backing of the Democratic leadership. Here we had a golden opportunity to debate and propose progressive property tax reform that would truly benefit those homeowners who need it most, and Frank Chopp and company seem happy to just quickly sweep the issue under the rug and get back to the business of expanding the Democratic majority. Um… to what end?
That said, there does seem to be some good news coming out of the state Senate, where more than a few Democratic senators are voicing their concern over rushing through the governor’s emergency legislation. After talking with several senators and staffers, it appears support is now coalescing around a proposal to temporarily reinstate I-747’s limits through January of 2009, giving the legislature the time to hold the kind of public hearings the initiative never received, while fully debating various alternatives. This is a proposal I and many other tax fairness advocates could support, as it provides adequate time for careful deliberation. It is also a reasonable and responsible compromise that allows Democrats to reject I-747’s permanent reinstatement without handing Gov. Gregoire and embarrassing defeat.
Under one scenario being discussed, the legislature would ultimately put a referendum on the 2008 ballot, giving voters a choice between the existing one-percent cap and a comprehensive package that might include a circuit breaker or property tax homestead exemption that targets substantial benefits to the majority of homeowners. Personally, I’d rather legislators just do their job and legislate, but I can understand the political advantages of a referendum.
But whatever the final package, it couldn’t be much worse than what the governor is proposing: a below-inflation cap and a deferral program that provides only a short term bandaid, and to very few households. The problem is not that our taxes are broadly too high, but that they are too regressive, imposing the greatest burden on those who can afford to pay the least, and unless we address this core issue, our state and local governments will never be able to adequately address the many pressing issues facing the citizens of Washington state.