Editorial: On taxes and transparency, the 2019 Legislature gets a D-

Washington State Capitol in Olympia
Washington State Capitol in Olympia McClatchy

Senate minority leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said that if it hadn’t been for the progress made on behavioral health care, this year’s legislative session would have been the worst in history.

As it is, he gives it a 3 out of 10.

The lack of transparency, the numerous new taxes and the dismantling of the state school equity plan puts the 2019 session on the bottom rung.

He and Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, met with the Tri-City Herald Editorial Board this week to discuss the negative impacts they see coming ahead as a result of the monumental $8 billion budget increase adopted by the Democratic-led Legislature.

Brown’s frustration with how the session played out this year was apparent, noting that “if you look at what’s actually in these bills” you find the details hurt average citizens.

For instance, she said the jump in the real estate excise tax was framed as primarily affecting people with million-dollar homes, but it also will affect people who own apartment complexes, which in turn affects renters.

As another example, the increase in the Business and Occupation tax will hurt a myriad of professionals and small business owners who are bound to wonder why the state needs to cut deeper into their profit margins.

Both senators agreed that Washington taxpayers are already providing more than enough for solid revenue growth, so there was no reason to adopt such a massive amount of new taxes.

And the way Democrats purposely by-passed the public process on the road to new revenue was, frankly, offensive.

While some will say gripes from Republicans are to be expected since their party had such little influence this year, their concerns over the way legislation was rammed through during the night without a chance for public participation is a justified complaint.

Both parties have been guilty of using loopholes to avoid transparency in the past to push bills through. However, this year the number of tax bills approved at the eleventh-hour was especially egregious.

The Washington Constitution, in order to prevent last-minute legislation with no public review, requires that bills be introduced at least ten days before the final adjournment of the Legislature.

In order to get around this provision, lawmakers introduce “title-only bills” with vague titles, such as “An Act Relating to Revenue” as a place-holder with details to come later. This tricky move was used this year to set a tax increase on out-of-state banks.

The bill did not go through a legislative committee, and the specific language wasn’t released until the day before it came up for a vote at 4:14 a.m. April 27, the day before the session ended.

Why couldn’t this bill have been discussed earlier? After all, the session is 103 days long. Why wait until the 101st day to disclose it?

It appears the bill’s proponents didn’t want to deal with opposition, which completely goes against the democratic process.

In addition to the rushed tax bills and the lack of transparency, Schoesler and Brown believe the Legislature is headed for a “McLeary 2.0” because lawmakers decided to lift local levy caps this year.

In order to make school budgets equitable across the state, lawmakers in 2017 put a lid on what local school districts could ask voters to pay in local property taxes. The state was expected to fill in the gap.

But it didn’t work very well, and left many school districts scrambling.

Rich school districts – primarily on the west side – balked and lawmakers caved. So now we are right back where we started when the state was sued for allowing a system in which students from wealthier areas have more resources than students from poor areas.

All in all, we think a course correction is in order. Banning title-only bills would be a great start, and that’s a realistic change we would like to see introduced next session.

More transparency could improve the legislative process. and perhaps clean up some of the mess created this session. Judging by what happened this year, improvement is desperately needed.