Guest Opinions

Transparency reforms gaining some traction

The Legislative Building is shown at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash.
The Legislative Building is shown at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. AP

Participating in the legislative process and learning more about your state and local tax burden may soon be easier thanks to a couple of reforms advancing in the Legislature. In both instances, our own Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, is playing a pivotal role.

Six years ago, Washington Policy Center made a pitch to Washington lawmakers to embrace remote testimony. After a couple years trial run, the Senate is now making remote testimony a permanent resource for Washingtonians.

According to Senate Democrats: “The Washington State Senate has approved a bipartisan proposal from Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D-Spokane) and Sen. Mike Padden (R-Spokane Valley) to make permanent and expand a program that further opens public access to state government by allowing remote video testimony in legislative hearings.”

For many Washingtonians across the state, participating during the legislative session means taking a full day off work or school to travel all day for the chance to provide a few minutes of testimony. For those on the east side of the state, there is also the danger of traveling across a mountain pass during the winter.

Remote testimony is the perfect tool to help address these problems and provide the opportunity for more Washingtonians to have their voices heard on the laws that will impact their lives.

There have been many legislative champions responsible for bringing remote testimony to the Senate. Along with the support of Sen. Billig, Sen. Padden deserves a shout-out for holding the remote testimony trial run in 2013 out of Spokane and Sen. Brown deserves one for working with Columbia Basin College in 2015 to set up a dedicated remote testimony room.

If there is a public hearing in the Senate you would like to use remote testimony for, I’d encourage you to contact the chair of the committee hearing the bill and request the option.

Let’s not forget however, that while we can celebrate the exciting remote testimony news in the Senate, there is still work to be done to bring this important resource to the House. For now, a big thank you once again to the Senate for its leadership and embrace of remote testimony.

Tax website

Another important transparency tool has been proposed by a bipartisan group of Senators. Senate Bill 5631 concerns transparency in state and local taxation, and is sponsored by Senators Brown, Becker, Fortunato, Schoesler, Warnick, Palumbo and Wilson (Lynda).

There are approximately 1,800 taxing districts in the state whose officials impose various taxes on Washingtonians. There is no single resource, however, to help individuals and businesses learn which taxing districts and rates they are subject to, and how much officials in each taxing district add to their total tax burden. A typical home, for example, can be located in as many as ten different taxing districts.

Increasing the ease of public access to state and local tax rates would enhance trust in government and increase the public’s understanding of the cost of government services. Improved transparency would also facilitate meaningful tax competition among taxing districts, because taxpayers could compare different tax burdens based on where they decide to live or locate their businesses.

Concerning why she sponsored SB 5631, Sen. Brown explained, “This bipartisan legislation is a great tool that will allow the public an easier, more efficient way to access state and local tax information. It is the people’s money and the people should have the ability to easily access how they are taxed.”

It looked like taxpayers were going to be provided this tax transparency resource last year when lawmakers adopted the 2018 supplemental budget. The budget included a tax transparency proviso based on language from SB 6590 in 2018 that was sponsored by Senators Fain and Palumbo. Governor Inslee, however, vetoed the bipartisan budget proviso for a tax transparency website saying not enough funds were provided to implement it.

Discussing why he is again co-sponsoring this proposal Sen. Palumbo said, “This website would be a much-needed window into our tax system. The information belongs to the people, and it’s past time that it was easily accessible. We made progress building support for the idea in the Legislature last year, and I’m confident that this year we can work out the funding details to get this site up and running.”

To help improve the transparency of state and local taxation, it is our hope lawmakers will act again on this bipartisan proposal to create an online searchable database of all tax districts and tax rates in the state. Hopefully the Governor will sign it into law this time.

Jason Mercier is the Government Reform director for Washington Policy Center, a non-profit research organization with offices in Tri-Cities, Spokane, Seattle and Olympia. Online at www.washingtonpolicy.org

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