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Padden: Counties’ campaign is about taxes, not public safety

In the final weeks of the 2017 legislative session, we’ve been hearing wild claims about the Senate’s no-new-taxes budget proposal; you might get the idea the sky is falling. The argument that bothers me most comes from the county officials and local law enforcement agencies – that the Senate budget shortchanges public safety. (“Give counties control of public safety funding,” May 14, by Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich)

As chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, I know this isn’t true.

Public safety is a top priority for the Senate, as can be seen by the torrent of bills tightening existing statutes and cracking down on crime. This year we have proposed and passed many important pieces of legislation. Among them:

  • Retail theft. We’ve made it easier to prosecute habitual offenders, and send them to prison for longer terms.
  • Felony DUI. We’ve made the 4th DUI a felony in Washington state.
  • Flash mobs. We’ve expanded the retail theft law to encompass organized efforts to overwhelm merchants.
  • Human trafficking. We’ve made it easier to prosecute traffickers who prey on underage victims.
  • Property crime. The Senate passed legislation that would toughen sentences for repeat offenders – building on a special $300,000 appropriation we provided last year for Spokane County law enforcement agencies.
  • Department of Corrections. The Senate has passed a comprehensive reform bill, in the wake of the scandalous early release of thousands of dangerous felons from state prisons.

Soft on crime? Hardly.

In actuality, amidst a wide-ranging debate about property taxes for schools, county officials and their lobbying organizations are mounting an effort that would allow them to raise taxes without voter approval.

Since 2001, cities, counties and local taxing districts have had to go to the voters if they wished to raise property taxes more than 1 percent a year. Washington voters approved this important taxpayer protection after dramatic spikes in home prices led to shocking property taxes. Until that time, local governments were able to raise taxes 6 percent annually. The cumulative effect of rising property values and yearly 6 percent property tax increases was driving people out of their homes.

This resulted in a decadelong tax revolt that prompted numerous initiatives, culminating in the 2001 Initiative 747. Legislators recognized the importance of this modest restriction. When the courts overturned it on a technicality in 2007, lawmakers returned in special session and passed it again. They knew that if there was no relief, the voters would likely pass something even more restrictive.

For 16 years, county officials have chafed at this limit. They argue that they can’t keep up with inflation, and complain they have been forced to make do with less, just like every other arm of government. There is nothing new about it, and if they want more money, they just need to convince the voters.

What does this have to do with public safety? If county officials said their goal is to increase taxes without voter approval, odds are they wouldn’t get anywhere. So they’re complaining that law enforcement programs are being cut. Indeed, in some counties, commissioners have chosen to cut public safety rather than make their case to the voters. They think raising taxes ought to be easier. Voters have shown they disagree.

The argument isn’t about public safety – it’s about taxes. Our colleagues in the state House have offered a spending plan that would require taxes so steep not even they have been able to pass them. At the same time they would lift the lid on property taxes and unleash the same forces that led voters to pass the initiative in the first place. Our budget in the Senate doesn’t do that, so county officials are hailing the House proposal and saying the Senate is soft on crime.

Like so many arguments we have heard this year about our school-financing proposal, this one paints a false picture to hide what is at stake. For most lawmakers, and the general public as a whole, public safety is a top concern. That’s why county officials are putting the elected county sheriffs out front – to win public sympathy for their position. They ought to place trust in the public to make the right choices, just as we do in the Senate.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, represents the 4th Legislative District.

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