Thursday’s State Supreme Court decision, which overturned
Initiative 747′s 1 percent property tax cap, the most important
question we wanted to answer was whether your taxes were likely to
go up beyond the former standard. In the short term it would appear
they won’t. There are 43 different taxing districts in the county
and we haven’t found one that would definitively say it would go
for more than the 1 percent. Even County Commissioner Josh Brown’s
complaints amounted to little more than
calling for a discussion of “systemic solutions.” His
unwillingness to respond to how the county would respond could mean
something and gives us all reason to watch Port Orchard closely,
but there’s been no change so far.
Kitsap County Assessor Jim Avery provided some more numbers of
interest on this issue. Before 747, taxing districts serving fewer
than 10,000 people had the straight 6 percent standard. Districts
above the 10K mark, however, were limited to inflation or 6
percent, whichever was less. They could get the 6 percent, however,
by officially declaring “substantial need” and passing it with a
majority-plus-one vote. In Bremerton it would have meant a 6-3
vote. In Poulsbo it would have to be 5-2.
I’m treading into Bob Meadows territory for the next two
paragraphs. I welcome his correction.
If a taxing district didn’t levy the full amount one year, it
could bank it and draw it in the future. Since 747′s limits set the
rate at 1 percent, smaller districts built up a bank of 5 percent a
year. The 30 percent number gets thrown around, but it would be
more because it compounds from one year to the next. According to
my math, it’s about 35 percent. In the worst-case scenario, it
means a taxing district that charged you $100 in 2001 and planned
to charge you $106.51 in 2008 could instead levy $141.85, or
thereabouts. It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the
For the bigger districts the “very rough” number is 7.24
percent, according to Avery. That’s the sum of the annual inflation
numbers, minus the 1 percent each year.
However, using the same formula I used before, it means a
district that charged you $100 in 2001 and planned to charge you
$106.51 in 2008 could instead levy $117.21. If the district
declared a “substantial need” need this year, that number goes up
These are all vagaries, of course, because they don’t add 1
percent directly to your property and no one has announced anything
other than 1 percent yet.
Chris Dunagan reported:
“But the 2008 budget could still be out of balance by $2 million
without staff cuts.”
Avery said the county’s estimated banked capacity is about $1.8
The long-term impact, however, will depend largely on the
Legislature. In our calls to local legislators the support for the
1 percent cap was pretty strong. It wasn’t unanimous, but it was
strong. Tim Eyman kind of chuckled when I told him about my
conversations with local legislators. He said the only legislator
who mattered was House Speaker Frank Chopp. “Frank Chopp decides
everything,” he said. The speaker has not commented.
The governor called for “a cap,” which doesn’t mean 1 percent.
As I wrote in my story, Eyman said he’d consider crafting another,
more restrictive, initiative if the Legislature does anything other
than put 747′s limits back in place.
The 5-4 court decision is based on the fact that the ballot
measure told voters they were dropping the cap from 2 percent to 1
percent. In coming to that conclusion, the majority cited a
previous case, Washington Association of Neighborhood Stores v.
State of Washington, which included:
“Citizens or legislators must not be required to search out
amended statutes to know the law on the subject treated in a new
statute. Under article II, section 37, a new statute must
explicitly show how it relates to statutes it amends.”
The majority took that statement and determined:
“Thus, a significant purpose of article II, section 37 is to
ensure that those enacting an amendatory law are fully aware of the
proposed law’s impact on existing law.”
There was included an argument in another case where the court
upheld a 1994 law that amended a 1993 law that was later ruled
unconstitutional. The majority reasoned that the earlier law had
not yet been ruled unconstitutional, so the amendment could stand.
In the case of 747, when voters went to the polls, the law they
were amending in the ballot, I-722, had already been struck
So in parts of the ballot 747 told you that you were reducing
the cap from 2 percent to 1 percent, when in fact you were reducing
the cap from 6 percent to 1 percent.
“Here, if a voter simply read the text of the initiative, he or
she would have understood that I-747 reduced the property tax levy
limit from two percent to one percent. Simply put, a voter reading
the text of the initiative would have perceived a much smaller
impact on government coffers than would actually occur under I-747,
a fact the dissent ignores. The text of the initiative misled
voters about the substantive impact of the initiative on existing
The majority argued that it’s the information on the ballot
measure that matters and dismissed the argument that the voters’
pamphlet had the correct explanation. But the majority addressed
the pamphlet and said it contained some of the same incorrect
information than was on the ballot, so the pamphlet was
The court acknowledged that this kind of problem means those who
would launch initiatives would have to wait until the courts had
ruled before filing, but that waiting was better than having an
eventually unconstitutional law on the ballot.
“Although we presume the validity of initiative measures and
respect the right of Washington’s citizens to exercise this
important privilege, article II, section 37 was designed to protect
voters and legislators from confusing or misleading information and
to maintain the integrity of the law-making process. Thus, where we
must weigh delay for initiative proponents against constitutionally
prescribed clarity for the voters, the constitution must
The four dissenters responded:
“No reasonable argument can be sustained that voters were in any
way misled or confused by the effect of I-747, which expressly and
was specifically aimed at lowering the tax growth to one percent.
The majority seems to suggest that the voters are unable to think
or read for themselves, when in fact our democratic process is
based on the assumption that voters do in fact read and understand
the impact of their votes.”
Others have answered another question I’ve been asked a lot. Who
were the judges?
The dissenters were Charles Johnson, Gerry Alexander, Richard
Sanders and Tom Chambers.
The majority were Bobbe Bridge, Barbara Madsen and Susan Owens,
joined by two pro tems, Stephen Brown and Teresa Kulik.
The pro tems were there because Justice Mary Fairhurst was in
the AG’s office when it defended 722 and James Johnson helped with
747. They recused themselves from this issue.
The response I’ve seen in the papers and heard on the radio have
almost all come from the outraged, people who argue, “The court
thinks we’re stupid.” I agree that voters probably knew what they
were doing. I would speculate that if the ballot measure had been
worded correctly it would have changed so few votes as to not
But I also wonder why there are so few people arguing that
perhaps the court is right that the one place we should demand
absolute accuracy is on a ballot or in a law.
I think the answer starts with what Bob Meadows wrote in a story
comment: “The majority opinion shows why cynics say that supreme
court opinions often start with a desired result and work backward
to try to rationalize that result in the words of the opinion.”
It isn’t just the cynics who say it. “You must remember one
thing. At the Constitutional level where we work, ninety percent of
any decision is emotional. The rational part of us supplies the
reason for supporting our predilections.” — Charles Evans Hughes,
Chief Justice, US Supreme Court (1930-1941)
Frankly, you could argue that sentiment applies not only to the
justices, but to many who have offered an opinion on their