A bill to allow local governments to increase sales taxes to fund housing and other programs for mentally ill and developmentally disabled people received overwhelming support at a Monday hearing in Olympia.
The same bill, by Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, would also allow local governments to create cultural access programs — essentially supplying local tax money for the arts — with funds coming from increased local property taxes.
The Washington House’s Finance Committee held a hearing on the bill Monday. A few dozen people — mostly from low-income housing and mental health interests — supported the bill. The Washington Retail Association and Washington Auto Dealers Association opposed it.
The bill would allow a county with less than 1.5 million people or a city to create a cultural access program with a raise in property taxes. And it would allow King County, the only one with more than 1.5 million people, or any other county to use sales tax money for such a program. Right now, Washington has a .6.5 percent state sales tax with additional local sales tax rates ranging from 0.5 percent to 3.1 percent. Recipients of this money would include public school programs.
Springer’s bill would also allow a county or city to add a 0.1 percent sales tax increase to pay for housing and related services to mentally ill and developmentally disabled people.
The retail and auto dealers associations opposed the bill because it could lead to sales tax increases, which would discourage potential customers from spending, their representatives told the finance committee.
Supporters included a wide range of social, housing and mental health organizations, plus private citizens.
“This bill will provide critical resources for developmentally disabled people,” said Joe Cunningham, whose autistic son is in school, but worries about where he will live later in life.
Inez Williams suffered mental health problems and was homeless for one-and-a-half years. When she finally obtained permanent shelter, she testified, “I could take my medication and get my life back.” Frank Palmer, a formerly homeless veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and now living in King County, said: “This shows to a person like myself that the smaller person in society matters.”
Andy Silver, executive director for the Council for the Homeless in Clark County noted that vacancy rates are below 2 percent in his area, meaning mental ill and extremely poor people have trouble finding places to live. He said, “This bill pretty much names all the people left out in a hot housing market.”
The first clue to whether this bill has a chance of surviving the GOP-controlled Senate will be a yet-to-be-scheduled finance committee vote. If the committee's Republicans support the bill, it would have at least a fighting chance in the Senate.