SEATTLE – A relatively obscure tax plan to equalize the way Washington homeowners pay for public schools got some time under the spotlight as the candidates for governor debated its merits.
What was most surprising about the mention of the levy swap plan at Tuesday’s debate in Yakima was the way this idea from Democrats has been adopted by Republican Rob McKenna and appears to have been rejected by Democrat Jay Inslee.
The plan would replace some local property taxes with a statewide education property tax and essentially take tax money from property rich taxpayers and distribute it to areas with schools in greater need.
McKenna generally endorsed the levy swap during the debate, noting that Democrats and Republicans have both been working on the idea. The chief proponent of the swap is Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Inslee, however, called the levy swap a “gimmick.” His campaign has created a website rejecting the idea and warning voters their property taxes might go up if McKenna is elected.
McKenna spokesman Charles McCray said the candidate supports the concept of the levy swap, but specifics haven’t been worked out because they don’t have the staff resources that come with being governor. He said it wasn’t clear whether proposals being worked up by Hunter and others would be taken up in their entirety.
“I would imagine they would serve as somewhat of a framework,” McCray said.
McCray said the levy swap is necessary to respond to a state Supreme Court decision that determined the state was not adequately funding education.
Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith said the candidate doesn’t think increasing property taxes for hundreds of thousands of people when the state is just beginning to emerge from the recession is the right thing to do.
“Especially when the proposal only fixes part of our education funding problem on paper, but doesn’t do a single thing to fix it in our classrooms,” she said.
Hunter said his proposal is still a work in progress, and he predicted if he and his colleagues can write a policy that gets enough votes in both houses of the Legislature, it would get signed by the governor, no matter who wins in November.
The idea is not ready for prime time, however, or for a sound bite during a political debate, Hunter said.
“It does not lend itself well to the kind of campaign these guys have to run,” he said.
Hunter expects the levy swap will be part of a long-term plan that makes school funding fair and dependable across Washington. The new levy system wouldn’t cost school districts a penny – some would actually see their tax income go up – but it would hit some taxpayers in their wallets.
Instead of the school districts with the highest property values being able to collect the most school levy dollars, taxpayers across the state would be contributing more to the overall state education system, and that money would be redistributed according to student population and needs, not by property values.
Taxpayers in high property value districts might not like seeing their dollars shifted to other places. And in places where taxpayers are paying relatively low school levies, such as Seattle, where a large population shares the tax burden – residents would likely see their taxes go up.
Hunter, one of the Legislature’s chief budget writers, believes his proposal would move about $1 billion around and eventually help fix some of the inequity in the way school dollars are distributed around the state.