Lawmakers take stand on urban-to-rural tax flow

Feb 1, 2011

Democrats in the Washington House of Representatives have a "One Washington" mantra. But a couple of Western Washington lawmakers are testing that East-West unity. Their issue? The flow of state tax dollars that go over the mountains.

Tax-generating counties

Six Washington counties account for more than 75 percent of all tax dollars sent to Olympia. Two of them actually send in more than they get back. The biggest contributor, by far, is King County.

Democrat Reuven Carlyle of Seattle says he's not trying to pick a fight with rural Washington. But he wants the public to understand where state tax dollars flow - in light of the projected $4.6 billion budget shortfall:

"The urban core areas of our state subsidize the rest of the state overwhelmingly and dramatically and as we make very painful and very difficult spending reductions we have to look honestly and genuinely at how money flows."

Carlyle says his goal is to generate a discussion about the state services Washington residents value and how to pay for them. To that end he proposes to close tax exemptions for farmers. Carlyle has a strange bedfellow in this tax flow exercise.

Dissolve some poor counties?

Glenn Anderson is a Republican from East King County. He too is troubled by his county subsidizing other counties. So he's proposed a constitutional amendment to allow the state to dissolve a handful of economically struggling counties – most of them east of the Cascades:

"At the root of the problem is the fact that when you have one county paying double – King County – for state services and then subsidizing the rest of the state to some level, that's unsustainable."

Anderson would like to see poor counties merge so they can share services, have a wider tax base and be less dependent on the state.

This conversation clearly rankles Republican Bruce Chandler. An Eastern Washington farmer, Chandler notes that many rural counties have a limited property-tax base because so much of their land is public. He calls his colleague's ideas for taxing agriculture and merging counties "divisive" and "unproductive."

"We have serious budget proposals that we have to look at and we have to get people back to work and so there's not going to be any more attention paid than it deserves," says Chandler.

Chandler isn't the only one declaring these proposals dead on arrival. The powerful Speaker of the House also says as much.