The Washington State Legislature passed a bill (SSB 5381, Ch. 115, Laws of 2012) that, effective June 7, will make passing a ballot measure to renew a six- or 10-year emergency medical services (EMS) levy easier.
Cities and towns, counties, emergency medical service districts, public hospital districts, urban emergency medical service districts, regional fire protection service authorities, and fire protection districts have the authority to pass an EMS levy to be imposed for six years, 10 years, or permanently. Under current law, passage of an EMS levy requires 60 percent voter approval with a voter turnout of more than 40 percent of the number of people voting in the last general election.
SSB 5381 adds an additional voter approval option. Subsection 1(2) states in part:
The uninterrupted continuation of a six-year or ten-year tax levy under this section must be specifically authorized by a majority of the registered voters thereof approving a proposition authorizing the levies submitted at a general or special election.
Taxing districts will, of course, find it easier to pass a levy with a simple majority rather than a 60 percent majority. To qualify to use the simple majority voting rule, the new levy must start in the year following the expiration of the prior levy – “uninterrupted continuation.” If a taxing jurisdiction decides to skip a year and go without an EMS levy or if the jurisdiction presents a levy ballot measure to the voters and they turn it down, then the next levy will not be eligible to use the simple majority voter approval option.
What about the levy rate? The new language doesn’t say anything about the tax rate at which the levy will be “continued.” In discussions at MRSC, a number of questions arose. If, for example, the original levy rate for the six- or 10-year levy was 40 cents per thousand dollars assessed valuation (AV), does that mean the ballot measure for the “continuation” can only propose a rate of 40 cents or less? Here’s another example. The original levy rate for a six- or 10-year levy was 35 cents, but the current rate is 23 cents because the assessed valuation of the taxing district was increased since the last election. Does that mean the levy rate in the ballot measure for the continuation levy can be no more than the current rate, 23 cents?
We consulted with the staff in the Property Tax Division of the Department of Revenue who, in turn, talked to legislative staff. Our understanding of their interpretation is that the new tax rate is not an issue. It can be as high as 50 cents per thousand dollars AV, the maximum allowed under RCW 84.52.069, no matter what the rate the current rate is or what rate was in the ballot measure for the expiring levy.