OLYMPIA – Senate Republicans say they share the frustrations of Washington voters with a political establishment that has done all it can to thwart their vote last November to reduce car-tab taxes, and they are responding with an agenda for the 2020 legislative session that responds directly to their discontent.
The 2020 Legislature opens Monday in Olympia for a scheduled 60-day session.
In last year’s general election, Washington voters approved Initiative 976 by margins that exceeded 70 percent in some counties, slashing license-tab renewal fees to $30 statewide. The governor’s response was to halt road projects unaffected by the vote, while political leaders in Seattle and King County have sued to overturn the initiative, claiming a ballot title written by the state’s attorney general misrepresented the measure.
Adding insult to injury, statewide-elected school superintendent Chris Reykdal tweeted, “If certain counties want transportation taxes cut, then they don’t get the projects.”
Outraged voters have flooded lawmakers’ offices with complaints. Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler says the furor illustrates a pervasive lack of trust and confidence in state and local government. Voters’ suspicions that their voices do not matter appear to have been confirmed.
“As well-intentioned as government can be, it can alienate people if it always acts as if it knows better than the people,” said Schoesler, R-Ritzville. “You can’t run the entire state as if it all fits in the Puget Sound region, and you can’t run the Puget Sound region like it’s the rest of Washington. You also can’t ignore or insult the people because their will makes your job more challenging. We hear our constituents loud and clear, and we know that what they want to see is a legislature that acts as if they work for the people – all the people.”
The people have been disheartened by the dismissal of their decision, said Senate Republican Caucus Chair Randi Becker, R-Olympia.
“What I hear a lot right now is that people feel like government doesn’t really care about their wishes – that what they want doesn’t matter,” Becker said. “They feel attacked and belittled. That’s a problem we are addressing by proposing a whole host of bills designed to do right by Washingtonians across the state,” Becker said. “We have a lot of great legislation that can really make a difference for everyone, while also keeping an eye on the state’s bottom line.”
In addition to bills that would implement the people’s will on I-976, Senate Republicans have introduced or are planning legislation to deal with the public’s top policy priorities, including mental health, homelessness, affordable housing and public safety.
Meanwhile, one element of the Senate Republican Caucus agenda requires no legislation, The caucus is creating an internal Tax Watchdog Committee to monitor efforts to raise taxes, as well as decisions that could force tax increases in the future. Senate Republicans maintain spending should be kept in check in anticipation of an economic downturn, to ensure taxation remains stable and reasonable, and to head off efforts to spend the state’s ‘rainy day fund’ for anything less than a genuine emergency.
Schoesler explained, “The rainy-day fund is meant to shore up the state’s budget in a recession and to help cover the cost of disaster response, like after an earthquake or a heavy wildfire season. Other needs, while certainly serious, don’t justify tapping into a fund that, while growing, is still far short of what would be needed to keep the state afloat in an economic downturn. And tugging at people’s heartstrings to get access to the state’s emergency fund is just wrong.”
Areas to be examined by the committee include spending for homelessness programs. For several years, Republicans have called for an audit of the organizations that receive state funds to provide shelter and services to the homeless population in what some refer to as the ‘billion-dollar housing industrial complex.’ Recently, the former Pierce County Housing Authority finance director was discovered to have stolen roughly $7 million in taxpayer money that should have gone toward homelessness response.
“We really need to get a handle on where money is already going, how it’s being spent and what kind of results we’re getting because mismanagement of the taxpayers’ money could be one reason why homelessness is getting worse,” said Schoesler. “That’s our responsibility to taxpayers and those who depend on services.”
The Tax Watchdog Committee will consist of the following members of the Senate Republican Caucus:
- Sen. Randi Becker (2nd LD)
- Sen. John Braun (20th LD)
- Sen. Steve O’Ban (28th LD)
- Sen. Phil Fortunato (31st LD)
Three of the committee members represent areas that were targeted with exorbitant car-tab fees for Sound Transit’s ST3 project. Sen. O’Ban, R-Pierce County, led the charge for three years for legislation that would have revised the valuation method for car-tabs, while warning that the failure to pass meaningful legislation could result in a citizen initiative that the Legislature would regret.
“When your message to people who are upset about car tabs for three years is to ‘just deal with it,’ they will do exactly that,” Becker said. “With I-976, they definitely dealt with it. Now it’s the Legislature’s duty to deal with it, and to make it work. This year, the Senate Republican Caucus will make it clear through legislation that we are listening and responding to the people of the state. And with our Tax Watchdog Committee, we’re saying: ‘We hear you. We’re listening. We’ve got your backs.’”