When legislators proposed changes to the Washington sales tax exemption during the recent legislative session, 12 out of 15 Southwest Washington lawmakers voted against it.
They warned that Oregon residents would stop crossing the border to visit stores in Longview and other border communities if it became more difficult to be exempt from Washington tax. But the bill passed anyway, and despite pleas to Gov. Jay Inslee, he signed it into law.
In recent joint interviews with The Daily News, local lawmakers said it felt like their colleagues in Puget Sound had ignored their concerns about this and other legislation. An increase in the school local levy lid and a commitment to 100% clean energy by 2045 — a measure that can be costly to manufacturers — also passed this session despite opposition from Southwest Washington legislators.
Local Republicans said it felt like rural Washington was under attack.
“This session was absolutely geared towards wins for urban Washington,” said Sen. John Braun, a Centralia Republican who represents parts of Cowlitz and Lewis counties.
Local Democrats Sen. Dean Takko of Longview and Rep. Brian Blake of Aberdeen agreed that there has been a “culture war” in the past between urban and rural Washington. But they said new leadership seems to better understand concerns in Southwest Washington.
Rep. Monica Stonier, a Democrat from Vancouver and House Majority Floor Leader, said there were many rural wins in the recent session. Among them was legislation that offsets college tuition for lower-income students by charging companies that employ highly skilled workers such as accountants and engineers. Many rural residents are in tax brackets that would qualify them for free college tuition under the new legislation, she said.
“I don’t know how that’s not a win for rural low-income areas,” Stonier said.
She acknowledged, however, that Southwest Washingtonians often feel left out of discussions in Olympia and said it is her job as a legislator to make sure the area is heard.
“This is an ongoing and recurring theme for Southwest Washington: the ways in which they feel Olympia and Puget Sound ignores them,” said Mark Stephan, associate professor of political science at Washington State University-Vancouver.
Southwest Washington functions as a third part of the state, he said. The region isn’t enough of a political player to overrule Puget Sound and is different enough from Eastern Washington that alliances among lawmakers are infrequent.
“There’s Vancouver and Longview, but there’s also all these smaller communities that accumulate to a pretty significant rural area that stands out in terms of it not really being understood honestly by the Legislature,” Stephan said Wednesday.
Most of the state senators and representatives from Clark and Cowlitz counties voted against the tax exemption revision this session. Democrats Takko and Blake, who represent a broad swath of the Lower Columbia and Southwest Coast, broke from the majority party to vote against the bill. But Reps. Stonier and Sharon Wylie, who represent the Vancouver area, voted for it. (And Sen. Ann Rivers, a Clark County Republican, was excused.)
After the sales tax exemption passed the Legislature, 38 lawmakers sent a letter to Inslee urging him to veto the measure.
“They didn’t seem concerned about the negative impact down here, because we voiced it,” said Rep. Ed Orcutt, a Kalama Republican.
The revision eliminates the sales tax exemption at checkout for residents from tax-free states and countries, including Oregon and British Columbia. Instead, starting in January, customers apply once a year for a reimbursement.
“It’s an easy vote when you don’t live along the border,” Takko said. “There aren’t a whole lot of people who intentionally drive from Rainier to Seattle to buy something, but they might drive from Rainier to Longview.”
Stonier, who represents the Vancouver area, said her district has a lot of residents who keep their Oregon licenses and plates to avoid paying Washington sales tax. And the tax law revision kept exemptions for industries with low margins and high inventory, such as the auto industry.
“In the end, that means we will have more revenue that is appropriately earned to invest in the same communities. My hope is we recover some lost revenue to invest in areas along the river (such as Longview),” she said.
Takko, however, said the $54 million in revenue the tax change may generate is “fairly insignificant” in a $52 billion, two-year budget.
Rather than an effort from urban Washington to “wage war” on rural communities, however, legislation like the tax exemption change could be a symbol of the divides that already exist, Stephan said.
“To some extent, they could be reinforcing and reminding people of why they are politically and culturally such different places,” he said.
There has been a cultural divide between urban and rural areas for at least the last century, he said, but political polarization has “solidified” this division in the last 20 years.
Rep. Blake said there’s historically been a “culture war” on rural issues such as mole trapping and cougar hunting, but he said he’s sensing a breakthrough.
“Some new folks have come in, and into my caucus specifically, who are more open to listening to the science on some of these issues, so I’m hopeful,” Blake said.
Takko added that new leadership in the Legislature understands that there are two Washingtons: urban and rural.
But he also expressed frustration that little was accomplished this past session to control burrowing shrimp, a divisive issue between urban and rural communities that revolves around pesticide use.
Takko and Blake each introduced bills to allow the use of a controversial pesticide — imidacloprid — to control the shrimp, which burrow under oyster beds, causing the oysters to sink into the mud and suffocate. Neither bill made it to the floor.
“I hate to characterize (them) this way, but the Seattle environmentalists do not understand what goes on in growing oysters in the Willapa Bay,” Takko said. “It basically came down to people out of Puget Sound testifying how bad spraying in the bay is versus those people that actually live in the bay and want to grow oysters.”
The divide is also present in school issues, Braun said. The increase in the local levy lid for school funding benefited wealthy urban communities because they have high property values. Meanwhile, poorer rural communities are left behind because residents don’t have the assessed value to raise large sums of money, he said.
“They can increase their levy rate by less than a dime and get an extra $500 per child. Whereas everyone else in the state will have to increase their levy rate (a far greater amount) and they’ll get somewhere between $150 and $500 per child,” Braun said. “That was clearly a one-sided deal.”
Blake and Takko said the school levy lid increase had mixed support and opposition that wasn’t tied to rural or urban communities.
“I don’t think it’s urban versus rural. It’s just people trying to get the best they can for their school district,” Takko said, adding that affluent school districts are often located in urban areas.
Stephan said the divide in Washington reflects national divisions. To overcome political polarization, he said, would take a significant bipartisan effort.
“The first thing we should do is we shouldn’t wage war the other direction,” Braun said. “We should be about governing all of Washington and finding policies that work for Cowlitz County, work for Longview and also work for Seattle.”
Aberdeen Republican Rep. Jim Walsh said he is optimistic that a change in Democratic leadership, with Rep. Frank Chopp stepping down from the House Speaker position, could change the course.
“We’re going to continue to fight the fight for this area and make sure that Olympia hears the voice of Southwest Washington and understands the problems of Southwest Washington,” Orcutt said.