Sen. Andy Hill's new bill attempts to help the state's homeless and soothe ruffled feathers in Olympia. Credit: John Stang
A new Senate bill would keep intact a $40 home-sales fee to help the homeless for one more year. After that time, the Washington Legislature would debate again whether to phase out a fees-for-homeless-housing program.
By a Monday evening voice vote, the Senate Ways & Means Committee recommended that the full Senate approve the bill. Democratic support was half-hearted. No Democrats voted against the recommendation, although Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said he was not voicing a pro or con position on sending the bill to the Senate.
The bill by Sen. Andy Hill, R-Remond, is an attempt to fix an unexpected brouhaha that surfaced when Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard and co-chair of the Senate Financial Institutions Committee, killed a bill by Rep. David Sawyer, D-Tacoma, Sawyer's bill would have stopped the scheduled phase-out of a $40 home-sales fee, which is used to help low-income and homeless people with rent on public and private housing. The fee is scheduled to drop from $40 to $30 in 2015, then down to $20 in 2016 and to $10 in 2017, until finally zeroing out in 2018.
Over the protests of Senate Financial Institutions Committee members from both parties, Angel recently closed a committee meeting just before a vote on that bipartisan funding-for-homeless bill. She did not explain her reasons at that time.
Angel had supported the same bill when it was introduced by Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, almost a month earlier. On Feb. 6, the entire Senate Financial Institutions Committee, including Angel, recommended that the Senate pass Darneille's bill. Since then, Darneille's bill has stalled in the Senate Ways & Means Committee.
Last Thursday, Angel expressed concern about a lack of appropriate data from the state Department of Commerce and asked Gov. Jay Inslee to appoint a task force to study homeless funding. On Friday, Inslee said Commerce had provided the appropriate data, that a task force was not needed and that the bill can be revived.
Hill's new bill would extend the beginning of the fee's phase-out to July 1, 2016. It also calls for the Washington Department of Commerce to coordinate a study group to look at long-term funding options for homeless housing programs that do not include the document surcharges. That report would be due Dec.1.
Ways & Means committee member Frockt tried twice on Monday evening to amend the bill to either make the $40 fee permanent or to extend the beginning of the phase-out in 2020. Both amendments failed (12-10) along party lines. Frockt argued that the program had worked well since it was installed in 2006. Sen. Karen Frasier, D-Olympia, said removing the fee or putting its eventual fate in limbo would wreak havoc on the financial planning of organizations that provide housing for the poor. Frockt added that the $40 fee provides housing help to the poor without taking money from the state's general fund.
Hill said that the fee was installed in 2006 with the announced intention of an eventual phase-out. Keeping the fee "would be a kind of bait-and-switch,” he added. “… We lose legitimacy with voters if we play these games."
Senate Democrat Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, thought extending the phase-out by one year merely puts the entire issue on hold. "My concern is this will put the homeless at the mercy of (Washington) D.C.-style politics," Nelson said.
Darneille plans to amend Hill's bill so that the home sales fee goes from $40 to zero in 2021, rather than 2018. Keeping a sunset provision in her proposed amendment, she said, is part of a compromise with the real estate landlord lobbying groups that support Angel's stance to remove the fees.
At a Monday public hearing on Hill's bill, organizations representing low-income people argued that the $40 fee needs to be kept intact to ensure stable housing for the poor.
“This is a system that is not broke, and doesn't need a fix," said Mark Putnam of the Committee to End Homelessness. Dan McConnon, deputy director of the Washington Department of Commerce, agreed: "It's a way to fight homelessness without draining the general fund."