Taxes took center stage as an estimated 100 citizens gathered Saturday morning at Meadowdale High School for a town hall style meeting that brought them face to face with their representatives in Olympia: Sen Marko Liias, Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self and Rep. Strom Peterson.
Many attendees had received their annual property tax statements earlier in the week, and for many the sting of 15 percent and greater increases was still fresh in their minds.
The meeting was mostly a question-and-answer session, where citizens took the microphone, had their say with questions and comments, and received immediate feedback from the legislators. The sometimes-heated questions covered a lot of territory, but the vast majority expressed concern and anger over taxes both in effect and under consideration.
“Enough is enough,” said Carolyn Strong of Edmonds, who echoed the frustration felt by many. “We’re being taxed to death. We need to pull our property taxes back down. And all this talk of a carbon tax — it won’t reduce global warming by even a fraction of a degree, but it’ll cost us plenty.”
“My landlady just got her property tax statement this week, and the increases mean she’ll have to pay two-and-a-half months of her Social Security income just to cover the taxes,” said Nancy Volpert, a self-employed housecleaner from Everett. “As for myself, I drive about 1,000 miles each month traveling to my clients’ homes. I’m hauling vacuums, brooms and cleaning supplies, so public transportation isn’t an option. I’m really scared at the prospect of higher gas taxes or, heaven forbid, a mileage tax. I live close enough to the financial edge as it is, and this could put me out of business.”
Strong and Volpert were joined by dozens of others expressing similar concerns.
Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self could relate.
“I opened my property tax statement last night and almost had a heart attack,” she said. “We knew it was going to be bad when we passed it, but with divided government in Olympia it was the only open path to meeting our court-mandated obligation to fund basic education. But now that we have a Democratic majority in both houses, we’re committed to fixing this for next year by rolling back the burden on homeowners and switching it to a capital gains tax. This means a less-regressive tax where people making money off investments will carry a larger share, and homeowners will see their tax bills actually go down significantly. Simply stated, if you’re not paying capital gains taxes to the IRS, you won’t be paying this one either and your total tax bill will be less.”
Rep. Strom Peterson then spoke to the issue of a carbon tax.
“Part of the bigger picture here is putting Washington State in a position to help lead the way to a carbon-free future,” he said. “We’re putting tremendous effort into being bipartisan in this. It’s the next economy. It means a future with vibrant clean energy industries that will bring jobs and economic gain. And we want those jobs right here in Washington, not overseas.”
While taxes were the dominant issue of the town hall, many citizens expressed deep concerns about gun violence and what our representatives are doing to address it.
“I’m really tired of being accused of trying to take away citizens’ Second Amendment rights,” said an obviously irate Ortiz-Self. “It’s not about rights; it’s about common sense gun laws. I’ve looked in the faces of too many grieving parents. We need to keep our children safe. It’s our kids we’re losing.
“Of course it’s a bigger issue than just guns,” she went on. “We can’t look at the gun issue void of mental health. And I’m absolutely appalled at President Trump laying the blame on inadequate attention to mental health right after he slashed the mental health budget.”
Peterson added: “We have a bump stock bill moving through the legislature right now, and I expect it will be on the floor within days. Other gun measures are in progress, but may not make it across the finish line this session. In the meantime, please everyone, keep the pressure on us with letters, emails, phone calls and visits.”
Sen. Liias stressed the need to appeal across the political spectrum on the gun issue. “My dad was an avid hunter, and I grew up in an environment that included guns,” he said. “We need to make sure that we protect the rights of legitimate gun owners, while keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. Common sense measures like prohibiting bump stocks, which has gained strong bipartisan support, will help get us there.”
Several other citizens voiced concerns about the opioid epidemic, relaying heartfelt personal stories of ruined lives, years of battling addiction, and losing loved ones to overdoses.
“This has touched my life too,” said Peterson. “I’ve lost a cousin and brother-in-law to overdoses, so to me it’s personal. We’ve passed several bills through the House to fund more treatment, institute a drug take-back program, and more. And I’ve learned that one thing we must do to address this effectively is get beyond the shame and stigma of drug addiction. We need to talk about it. And at the same time we need to recognize that there are many folks who legitimately need prescription opioids, and we have to ensure that they are able to get them.”
Other issues raised at the town hall included the proposed legislation to regulate fish farms in Puget Sound; where the legalized marijuana taxes are going; expanding the rights of non-custodial parents and family members to have access to minor children after divorce; ensuring adequate funding for Department of Social and Health Services language interpreters; and the hike in car tab costs to fund Sound Transit even though light rail is still years away.
Responding to the latter, Sen. Liias pointed out that even though light rail hasn’t made it to Snohomish County yet, the funds are being used right now to pay for more buses. “Forty percent of our commuters along I-5 are using these buses,” he said. “So even though light rail isn’t here yet, the money from car tabs is definitely reducing congestion.”
In conclusion, all three legislators urged citizens to continue letting their voices be heard, and to stay involved.
“It is so important to hear from you,” concluded Peterson. “Write, email, call, or better yet come down to Olympia. We’re happy to throw the lobbyists out of our office to meet with the citizens we represent. You come first.”
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel