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Homeowners can put off property tax

OLYMPIA – Struggling to pay your property taxes?

Some low- and middle-income homeowners can delay paying those taxes.

Here’s who qualifies:

•You must have had a household income of $57,000 or less last year.

•You must have owned the home for at least five years.

•You must have significant equity built up.

•It must be your primary residence.

Here’s the catch: the taxes are only deferred, not eliminated. When you sell or move out of the home, those taxes must be paid, with interest. (The interest rate this year is 5 percent.)

To find out more, contact the state Department of Revenue at (360) 570-5900.

Next place to see unpaid furloughs: the statehouse

Like many of their private-sector colleagues, some state workers are being told to take unpaid time off in order to save their co-workers’ jobs.

“As you know, the Legislature did not exempt itself from the reductions that were made across the rest of state government,” Secretary of the Senate Tom Hoemann recently wrote to staffers.

The Senate is cutting eight jobs; the House of Representatives is cutting 10. Workers in both must also take five days off, unpaid, this year and next year.

On top of that, House Chief Clerk Barbara Baker said, House employees volunteered to take a total of more than 4,300 more hours off without pay. That saves an extra $420,000, she said, and saves four jobs.

Elsewhere in state government, state agencies and worker unions have so far been reluctant to institute furloughs, although it’s been talked about. (A key difference: the people who work for the House and Senate aren’t union members.)

Interestingly, there’s one group whose pay cannot be cut: state lawmakers. The salaries – which range from $42,000 to $50,000 a year – are set by a citizens commission. And the state constitution bans the commission from reducing elected officials’ pay. Legislators’ salaries can, however, be frozen, and that’s what the commission has ordered for the next two years.

Seattle health march included busload from Spokane

A recent Saturday found thousands of people marching through Seattle, calling for national health care reform. A larger national rally is slated for June 25 in Washington, D.C.

Among the marchers: a busload from Spokane.

“I can’t believe that a country as great as this has so many uninsured people,” said Mary Beth Fitzgerald. Her oldest son, who works for a small business that doesn’t offer health coverage, got a sore throat that worsened until it became an emergency, needing antibiotics.

“I believe health care is a right, not a privilege,” said Debi Bessmer, a Spokane nurse. “This is the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”

Also marching was Jim Fitzgerald, a 54-year-old Spokane Valley bus driver.

“By showing up and adding ourselves to the march, we hope to add to the groundswell of grass-roots support to push this over the top,” he said.

More road for the money

Here’s some sort-of-good news amid the economic slowdown: construction costs are way down.

That’s what the state Department of Transportation is discovering as it bids out millions of dollars in road work. The bids are coming back much lower than expected.

The agency recently awarded 15 contacts worth $64 million. The bids came back 21 percent lower than state engineers expected. Another 100 contracts awarded since last July have come in nearly 30 percent lower than expected.

Result: more projects for the dollars.

“The trend toward low bids reflects how difficult the current economy is for our contractors,” said state transportation secretary Paula Hammond. It also reinforces how important state and federal stimulus dollars are for getting people back to work, she said.

Number of uninsured in state is surging

The trend won’t be a surprise, but the numbers are pretty startling: state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said this week that the number of Washingtonians with no health insurance has shot up to a record 876,000.

That’s 1 in 5 people between the ages of 19 and 64. And that number doesn’t include people whose employers have stopped offering insurance, or workers who can’t afford their employer’s health plan.

“These are not just statistics,” Kreidler said. “They are people you know – family, friends, neighbors, colleagues. Maybe even you.”

This year alone, he said, 150,000 Washingtonians will lose their health coverage, mostly because of being laid off.

Kreidler is pushing for universal health coverage that’s not linked to a job.

“If we fail to act,” he said, “we will see 1 million people living without health insurance in our state.”

To be followed by COFFEE 2010

As a reporter, I get upward of 100 e-mails daily. But some just jump out.

“More than 6,500 scientists and doctors will convene at SLEEP 2009,” one recent e-mail began.

It turns out that a group called the Associated Professional Sleep Societies hosts an annual scientific conference about, yes, sleeping. They’ve been holding these conferences for 23 years.

The group also publishes a monthly journal entitled – you guessed it – SLEEP.