The battle for King County's lifeboat got under way today with a hearing in the House Finance Committee. Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, introduced a 12-page bill created specifically to solve King County's budget crisis last week. Currently $10.5 million in county programs from mental health court to the White Center family planning clinic are funded only through June with money from the deep-in-the-red county general fund.
Hunter's bill would give the county the ability to impose a variety of utility taxes and allow it to impose a three-year public safety sales tax without voter approval. It's designed to keep the boat afloat without that general fund cash. The bill also gives cities the ability to impose additional utility taxes on unincorporated areas that come into the fold. (It would also require cities that that don't annex nearby urban areas to chip in a portion of their sales tax to the county.) Predictably, those new taxes already have groups jumping in to oppose the bill.
Amber Carter, who handles tax policy at the Association of Washington Business, says any new sales and utility taxes will just be another onerous burden on businesses in King County. She says the county is already too complicated when it comes to managing tax payments and this will make it worse without actually solving King County's problems in the long run. "We believe this will further exacerbate a problem that exists," she told the committee.
Washington State Association of Water and Sewer Districts lobbyist Joe Daniels says the taxes could cost King County water and sewage providers and their customers an additional $10 million in taxes. "The money you will be taking in this utility tax is money that we use to upgrade our systems and keep them in good running order."
The bill has strong support from anti-poverty groups who don't want to see the boat sink. Michael Ramos, Executive Director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, and Bill Block, project director at The Committee to End Homelessness, both testified in favor of the legislation hoping to see endangered programs currently adrift in the boat kept alive past June.
And State Auditor Brian Sontag likes it because of a clause requiring a performance audit of everything paid for by King County's general fund by the end of next year. "This is a great opportunity for King County to demonstrate an additional, new degree of openness, transparency, accountability," he testified.
Larry Gossett, chair of the county budget and fiscal management committee, represented the council this morning in support of the bill, saying the bill "provides us with some critically needed tools that we can use to maintain very important public service, health and human services programs." While Hunter is currently the bill's only sponsor, Gossett says he's confident the large percentage of legislators with a district at least partly in King County will get on board as the specifics of the bill are become clearer.
Negotiation is the key to this bill. It may pass in some form, but Hunter says it won't look like it did this morning. The question will be, can King County hang on to enough of what it needs to make the budget pencil out?