The COVID-19 situation has prompted Clark County and other counties in Washington to extend the deadline for making first-half property-tax payments. Not even a pandemic, however, can keep the tax collector away indefinitely – and as many in Clark County have noticed, the tax collector wants more money for 2020 after a decrease only a couple of years ago. There are three primary reasons for that, two of which involve the state Legislature.
Let’s begin with the breaking of the “McCleary promise.” The landmark, bipartisan school-funding agreement negotiated by a select group of lawmakers (including Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and I) in 2017 included an equitable rebalancing of property-tax rates statewide. It capped local school tax levies at no more than $1.50 per $1,000, effective for 2019, which had the bonus effect of lowering property taxes for a majority of property owners statewide.
Unfortunately, the tax relief was short-lived. Just as the 2019 legislative session was ending, the new majority in the Legislature raised the local school-levy lid to $2.50 per $1,000 assessed value, starting in 2020. This 67-percent increase equated to a $300 property tax hike on a $300,000 home. In many school districts, the property-tax increase automatically went into effect (meaning without voter action) in 2019.
Beyond the financial cost, raising the school-levy lid opens the door to again giving school districts with high property values an unfair advantage in raising local dollars and providing opportunities for their students. That is a path back toward the inequality that produced the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling in 2012.
Also, a majority of legislators had decided in 2018 to “buy down” the state school property tax rate by 30 cents, and that softened the initial blow from the two-thirds increase approved in 2019. It was only good for one year, however, and in 2020 the year was up. That tacked another $90 in tax onto a $300,000 home.
Finally, the taxing districts in Clark County include not only school districts but fire, port, library, cemetery, EMS and parks districts, depending on where the property is. These districts also are allowed to ask voters for a higher tax levy, and when a majority says yes – as they often do – that’s reflected in the property-tax statement.
My Senate Republican colleagues and I will continue working toward property-tax relief – for instance, by exempting a set amount of property value (like the first $100,000) from property taxes. That was the intent of Senate Joint Resolution 8208, which I introduced in 2019, with Senator Rivers and Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, among the co-sponsors.
At the moment, however, I’m more concerned about the Clark County families that have lost income due to the COVID-19 shutdown of our state. The postponement of the county’s property-tax payment deadline to June 3 was a nice gesture, but it isn’t as helpful now that the governor has extended his stay-at-home order to May 31. Property-tax increases are painful all by themselves; for many, the pandemic response has made it worse.
Sen. John Braun represents the 20th Legislative District, which includes a portion of northern Clark County. He is Republican leader on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.