In 2015, the average household in Snoqualmie may have to add $30 to its annual property tax bill in order to assume the tax burden of the Salish Lodge sitting atop Snoqualmie Falls. Is it because the Salish is struggling? No, it is a thriving business. It is because it was purchased by the Muckleshoot Tribe in 2007. And while the Salish’s typical employment and revenue numbers will remain unchanged, the State Legislature is poised to give it a tax break under the guise of economic development. Or, is it simply welfare for the rich?
On March 7, a bi-partisan State Senate voted 37 to 12 to approve House Bill 1287, which will provide a tax exemption for property owned off of reservations by Washington State tribes. But don’t panic. The tribes say that your local governments won’t lose much revenue. The tribes’ property tax burden will simply “shift” onto you and all other property tax payers.
This legislation might make sense if it contained language and criteria that tied it to clear and compelling governing principles and goals such as addressing the needs of poor tribes, or providing reparations for historical wrongs, or creating jobs and stimulating the local economy. Unfortunately, it is deeply flawed. HB 1287 does not distinguish between wealthy and poor tribes; the tax “shifts” apply to all tribes equally. It has no means by which to determine if an exempt property will actually produce any measurable or new economic development.
Tribes are arguing that they are like local governments since they provide similar services; therefore, they should enjoy similar tax breaks. They point out that many cities and counties own and operate tax-free golf courses, airports, and convention centers and, like local governments, they should enjoy the same benefits, off-reservation, as if such city facilities are equal to hotels, commercial centers, and shopping malls.
The comparisons quickly fall apart.
Tribes are recognized by the federal government as sovereign nations, not local governments. On reservations, they live by their own rules which allow them to run lucrative casino and retail operations that pay little to no taxes. Tribes, such as the Snoqualmie and Muckleshoot, are quickly becoming some of the wealthiest private investors in Washington. Cities cannot purchase properties outside of their corporate boundaries.
City business holdings are operated for the benefit of the local community and require full accountability and transparency to the local community. Tribal business investments do not. Tribal functions that provide government services should qualify for tax exemptions, but when investing in off-reservation business enterprises, they should play by the same rules as everyone else.
Governor Jay Inslee will be reviewing the bill imminently for signature. To voice your opposition to this bill and avoid the property tax increase, please call the Governor’s office today at (360) 902-4111. To e-mail, go to his website at www.governor.wa.gov/contact.
Mayor Matt Larson