Tharinger backs bill to allow counties to raise sales tax without public vote

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

OLYMPIA — County governments across the state would be able to raise sales taxes to fund public safety without a vote of the people under a bill backed by a North Olympic Peninsula legislator.

HB 1919 would allow county legislative bodies, without the approval of registered voters, to enact a sales and use tax for such areas of public safety as law enforcement, criminal prosecution and fire protection.

“It doesn't require [counties] to do that; it just gives them the option,” said 24th District Rep. Steve Tharinger, one of the bill's supporters.

Tharinger, D-Sequim, came to support the bill after a similar measure he had sponsored never made it out of the House Committee on Local Government.

The legislation is now before the House Rules Committee, which decides when and if the full House will vote on it, but the bill had not been scheduled for a floor vote as of Friday.

“It's pretty likely that if HB 1919 doesn't make it by [this] Wednesday, it would be down for the year,” said 34th Legislative District Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, the bill's prime sponsor.

Tharinger, along with fellow Sequim Democrat Kevin Van De Wege and state Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, represents the 24th District, which comprises Clallam and Jefferson counties and a portion of Grays Harbor County.

Currently, counties can ask voters for a sales tax increase not to exceed 0.3 percent to help pay for public safety costs, according to the legislative staff report on HB 1919.

At least one-third of funds collected through such an increase must be used for criminal justice, fire protection or both.

HB 1919 does not change the 0.3 percent cap or how much has to be spent on public safety.

Fitzgibbon's bill as originally proposed would have applied only to King County because it contained a county population requirement of 1.5 million or more.

But Fitzgibbon said he was approached by Tharinger and others after a House Finance Committee hearing of the bill about removing the population minimum.

The other legislators, Fitzgibbon said, told him their local law enforcement agencies and fire departments had been struggling with declining sales tax revenue and that their communities would benefit from another option for generating more money to fund public safety services.

“I found these problems were not unique to King County,” Fitzgibbon said.

Tharinger said last week that he asked for the removal of the county population requirement because a county's elected leaders should be able to review their expenditures and raise tax money for public safety if needed.

When asked if the bill could be considered a way around voters, Tharinger said, “I guess you could say that,” but added that county commissioners themselves are held accountable by the public for decisions they make.

“County [commissioners] are elected officials, and they have to stand in front of the people,” Tharinger said.

“Being elected leaders, they are responsive to the voters.”

Alternatively, Tharinger said, county commissioners could work with their law and justice committees to develop public safety sales tax language, if needed, instead of spending money on running such a tax in an election.

Also, if county residents were unhappy with such a tax, Tharinger said, voters could gather signatures and defeat the tax via a referendum.

Jefferson County voters approved a sales tax increase of 0.3 percent in 2010 to help fund public safety, youth and senior services, health services and basic government services.

Jefferson County Administrator Philip Morley said the legislation, if passed, would not affect Jefferson County because the county is already at its 0.3 percent cap for public safety sales tax.

Clallam County voters have not been asked to consider a public safety sales tax increase since 2001, when they approved a 0.1 percent increase to help fund the county's 9-1-1 system, Clallam County Administrator Jim Jones said.

Clallam County Commissioner Mike Chapman said commissioners have made clear in their most recent State of the County report that commissioners will not approach county voters with a sales tax increase in the near future, even if HB 1919 becomes law.

“If we would move forward with a tax increase, odds are it would still go to voters,” Chapman said.

“But that's not something we're going to discuss anytime soon.”

Since sales tax is tied to a community's economic health, Chapman said, elected leaders should not consider raising taxes that would affect merchants and other economic drivers as a way to raise sales tax revenue.

“We need to focus on growing our economy, and then the sales tax will come in as an effect of growing the economy,” Chapman said.

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Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at jschwartz@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: March 10. 2013 1:21AM
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