The GOP-backed education property tax could make the urban-rural divide worse, writes Jonathan Martin.
Tally up the winners and losers of the massive $4 billion property-tax increase just passed by the state Legislature, and the results pretty much line up like this:
Districts that elect Democrats will pay more — a lot more in some cases. Republican districts get tax cuts, or at least flat taxes.
And that math may have interesting consequences for the future balance of power in Washington’s Legislature.
The new education financing plan to meet the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling is very complex, and will do many great things for Washington schools. That’s worthy of a whole different column.
But who pays is important, and the politics are relatively simple. Republicans, who control the state Senate, locked up with impressive discipline around a long-debated plan to pay for it with property taxes. Democrats, who control the House, wanted new taxes tilted toward the rich, but bowed under deadline pressure.
Politically, it was a huge win for Republicans. But I think it may cost them.
Here are the biggest winners and losers: Eight mostly Eastern Washington school districts will see the biggest property tax cuts once the plan is fully phased in by 2021. Six of them elect Republican senators. The exception is in southwest Washington, which I’ll get to in a moment.
Meanwhile, all the biggest property-tax increases fall on districts that touch Lake Washington or Puget Sound in and around Seattle. All have Democratic senators.
Except one: the 45th Legislative District, representing Redmond and Woodinville. That seat is up for grabs in November because Sen. Andy Hill, a respected moderate Republican budget wonk, passed away.
That’s an important exception because the GOP must win the 45th to retain a one-vote majority in the Senate. If the Democrat, Manka Dhingra, wins, her party runs the show in Olympia: both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion. More than $1 million already has been spent on what will be the state’s most expensive legislative race ever.
Under the GOP plan, owners of the average home in the Lake Washington School District in the 45th will be hit with an annual property tax bump of $790. It’s one of the biggest losers.
That figure really jumped out when I dived into the details because voters in Kirkland and Redmond, as generally affluent as they may be, don’t blindly say yes to higher taxes for schools. They said no on capital bonds three times this decade — despite huge school overcrowding — before finally saying yes last year.
As a result, the big GOP win for Eastern Washington saddles their suburban King County candidate, Jinyoung Lee Englund, with a difficult question: What’s with her party jacking up taxes on her would-be constituents?
Englund gets the implications. “It’s going to hurt people in my district that are part of Lake Washington School District. When I go door to door, people tell me they are at their breaking point” with property taxes and higher car tabs, she said. “It’s so much money in such a short period of time.” She said she would have voted no.
Nonetheless, Democrats now have a good pocketbook issue to play up. “I can’t believe people are going to throw flowers at the feet of Republicans when they had other options” to fund McCleary, Gov. Jay Inslee told me last week. “There were other fairer ways to do it.”
Englund’s predicament reflects a broader trend in state politics. The GOP’s hold on the booming east side of King County has evaporated, draining the Legislature of most of its moderate Republicans. If Sen. Steve Litzow, a Mercer Island Republican, hadn’t lost last year, he’d have to explain why the average Mercer Island taxpayer should pay a whopping $1,280 annual property-tax bump.
The GOP obviously isn’t writing off the 45th, but they’re also looking west, to Trump country on the Pacific Coast, to hold onto power. That strategy is reflected in their property-tax plan.
That one district I mentioned that was represented by a Democrat but was a big winner in the property-tax plan? The 19th Legislative District, which stretches from Aberdeen to Longview, is the same one that made news in November after ending a Democratic-only streak dating back to 1949. Trump won there, bigly.
The GOP is going to target the saltwater blue dog Democrats even more in the future, likely draining Olympia of even more moderates. But the GOP can accurately say they cut those voters’ property taxes.
The property-tax plan was a huge win for the GOP, but here is one potential longterm consequences. If Englund loses, there will be no Republicans representing the three east-side King County districts along Lake Washington for the first time since statehood.
We already have a hard time talking across the urban-rural divide. And it’s not going to get any easier.
Information in this article, originally published July 11, 2017, was corrected July 12, 2017. A previous version of this story misspelled the name of a 45th Legislative District candidate. The correct spelling is Manka Dhingra.