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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘We need each other more than we pretend’: Data contradicts sense of geographic imbalance in state taxes, services

Washington residents may be divided east versus west, urban versus rural or Democrat versus Republican. But when it comes to state taxes and spending, they may share one us-versus-them belief: We pay more in taxes than we get back in services, while folks in other parts of the state pay less and get back more.

It is an underlying current for arguments to split the state at the Cascade Crest and an explanation for the increasingly bitter court battle over Initiative 976, which seeks to flatten out the fees to re-license motor vehicle tabs to $30. But a careful look at the data suggests maybe it shouldn’t be.

For many residents, they could be right and wrong at the same time. They might pay less in the state sales, property, real estate excise, and business and occupation taxes that go into the state’s General Fund than they receive in the average per-person payments from state programs and salaries covered by that budget.

But they might also pay more in state fuel and vehicle taxes than they get back in the road, bridge, infrastructure and transit programs when compared to other counties in the state transportation budget.

That’s the situation for Spokane County residents, based on the most recent analyses of those two major state budgets by the departments that oversee them.

Spokane County residents got back about $1.32 for every $1 in taxes they paid into the General Fund, with the money going to social services, corrections, schools, public colleges and other state agencies. That’s according to the Office of Financial Management estimates for fiscal year 2016, the most recent for which the agency has figures. The ratio was down slightly from $1.35 for every $1 collected in 2008, the last time OFM did that complicated analysis.

Spokane County got back an average of 78 cents for every $1 collected in the county on fuel and vehicle taxes and fees between 2015 and 2019, according to a new analysis by the Department of Transportation. That’s the same return it saw for the period between 2003 and 2014, in the department’s previous analysis.

By comparison, King County residents got an average of 54 cents for every $1 in taxes collected in their county that went into the General Fund for services and salaries. But the state spent $1.13 for every $1 in fuel and vehicle taxes collected in the county.

Comparing those averages has limitations, the people who compile them caution.

Lizbeth Martin-Mahar, assistant director of economic analysis for the transportation department, said many counties with relatively small populations and few vehicle registrations – two data points that figure into the equation – will show up with relative high spending when a major project is underway in that county.

Kittitas County, for example shows an average level of spending at $4.92 for every $1 in state transportation revenue collected over the last five years. That’s the result of a major upgrade to an Interstate 90 underway on that side of Snoqualmie Pass. But residents of Kittitas County don’t receive all that money, and they’re not the only ones who benefit from the project because the pass is used by people throughout the state to travel or ship goods from one side to the other.

In the department’s earlier analysis, spending in Kittitas County was much lower, at $1.66 per every $1 collected, because the big project wasn’t underway for that entire period.

Spending in Garfield County went down from $3.69 to $2.23 per $1 of revenue collected between the two studies because a major project finished there, Martin-Mahar said.

“It’s a snapshot in time,” she said.

Over the years, the spending tends to even out, but big projects can make it jump. Transportation spending in Spokane has stayed relatively steady spending because of ongoing work on the North Spokane Corridor.

Just as one big project in a lightly populated county can boosts those ratios, big populations with large numbers of vehicle registrations can keep them lower. The recent ratio of spending to taxes for King County of $1.13 for every dollar collected may seem modest compared to some small counties, but it includes some $3 billion in projects, which is more than half the total being spent in the state, she said.

The county comparisons for the General Fund also have some limitations. For example, the sales tax revenue is attributed to where the purchase is made, not where the buyer lives. So if a person from Colville comes to Spokane for Christmas shopping, the sales tax revenue is listed for Spokane County, not Stevens County.

Tuition at state colleges and universities is also a challenge, because it can be attributed to the county where the institution is or the county where the student comes from. OFM calculates it both ways, and produces a third table that averages out that and some other statistical issues. That third table is the one The Spokesman-Review used for the maps accompanying this story.

King County and other fast-growing counties with high assessed property values also collect more in property taxes with the same statewide levies and more in the real estate excise tax, so the totals are larger before being divided for population. But they also have some of the highest spending on state programs, with more than one fourth of all General Fund spending taking place there.

But because of the large population, King County is 25th out of the 39 counties for per capita spending. And when it comes to comparing the ratio of revenue collected to money spent from the General Fund, King County is 38th out of 39, with that ratio of 54 cents spent for every $1 collected.

Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, is the one who first asked OFM to compile the analysis and who asks for an update every few years because it takes that long to gather and analyze new data.

Carlyle said Tuesday he does it to try to unite the state rather than to divide it between east and west or urban and rural. Rural Washington needs the Seattle ports to ship their products; the metropolitan Puget Sound needs rural Washington for food, recreation and relaxation, he said.

“I really want the people of Washington to recognize that different communities have different needs,” he said. “I think we need each other more than we pretend – on every level.”

The campaign over I-976 may have played on the cynicism and anger some residents have about other parts of the state without getting to the deeper question of how Washington designs a 21st Century transportation system, Carlyle said. Calls to split the state in two fail to recognize the state is basically a family, he added.

“Like all families, we have our little spats and our agitated chatter at the dinner table,” he said.