One initiative is born. Another initiative dies. Just days after voters approve Tim Eyman’s blatantly unconstitutional and laughably unworkable I-960, the state Supreme Court throws out Timmy’s laughably unconstitutional and blatantly unworkable I-747. It’s the Tim Eyman version of the “circle of life.”
“A voter reading the text of the initiative could believe that he or she was voting to reduce the property tax limit by 1 percent instead of by 5 percent, a substantially different impact on the public coffers, as well as the perceived benefit to the individual voter’s purse,” the majority, led by Justice Bobbe Bridge, wrote.
To sum up the 5-4 decision, the majority ruled that I-747 technically violated the state Constitution, while the dissenters argued that yeah, sorta, but voters weren’t confused. Personally, I’m a big fan of the rule of law, so I side with the majority.
Eyman has passed six initiatives since achieving celebrity status in 1999, four of which have now been thrown out by the courts in whole or in part… with I-960 sure to make number five. And while it would be fun to tease Tim about his woeful inability to write laws that are, you know, legal — and I’d absolutely love to poke fun at the legal eagles who share credit for crafting I-747, state Attorney General Rob McKenna and state Supreme Court Justice Jim Johnson — I think I’d rather take this opportunity to post a more constructive commentary.
Eyman has arrogantly challenged the Legislature to respond to today’s court ruling, and I think they should do exactly that, by reimposing I-747, but at a more realistic limit factor on revenue growth of 4% or inflation, whichever is lower. This would allow local governments to continue to provide services at current levels without being forced to go to voters every couple years for special purpose lid lifts, while providing the kind of budgeting stability afforded the private sector. With energy and health care costs continuing to skyrocket, I-747’s 1% limit factor is simply unsustainable.
At the same time, Democrats in Olympia need to take the lead on providing targeted and meaningful property tax relief to those who need it most, without bankrupting the local governments that provide the bulk of our essential public services. I have long championed a revenue neutral Property Tax Homestead Exemption tied to median county home prices, that would partially reverse a decades long trend in which tax burden has gradually shifted from commercial property and the very wealthy to working and middle income homeowners. But the folks at the Washington State Budget & Policy Center have a better, if more complicated, proposal: a Property Tax Circuit Breaker.
Circuit breakers provide targeted, revenue neutral relief by providing a graduated tax credit that kicks in when property taxes exceed a certain percentage of household income, and unlike a homestead exemption, the credit can be made available to renters and homeowners alike. In a state that earns the dubious honor of having the most regressive tax structure in the nation, a well-designed circuit breaker would not only provide substantial relief to low- and middle-income households — say, a 15% reduction in property taxes — it would also restore a bit of fairness and equity. Lower income households would still pay a higher share of income in property taxes than wealthier households, but the size of the imbalance would be lower.
This is a smart and progressive proposal that lowers property taxes on the majority of voters while raising those on the wealthiest households by only about 2 percent. It is time for Democrats to seize control of this debate from demagogues like Eyman and the GOP leadership, by offering real leadership and real solutions. It is time to approve a property tax circuit breaker.