The Knowns, the Known Unknowns, and the Unknown Unknowns.

By Leslie

A much scaled-down version of SHB 1437 passed out of House Finance on Thursday February 28th.

2SHB 1437 takes the exact same language as SHB 1437, but limits participation in the homesite tax treatment to persons farming in Thurston County.  It also requires a JLARC (Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee) evaluation and report back to the legislature.

This means that small farms in 38 counties will continue to be assessed at fair market value on a one acre lot around and under their residence.

What is so special about Thurston County?

Nothing.  It is about what could get out of committee.  It was a very practical result.

I take that back.  In this context, there was something special about Thurston County.  The Thurston County Commissioners supported the legislation and testified in front of the legislative committees.   The County Assessor was willing to work on resolving differences.  For a program with local impacts, the support of local government officials made a big difference.  And the residents of Thurston County are involved in a local food movement, emphasizing sustainability and community.  Maybe the difference is that Thurston County is eager for this.

Hey – other counties are special to!

They are indeed, very special, and we need to continue to push for a state-wide bill.  Food and farming are state-wide concerns.  We have to translate the community interest in small farms to the state as a whole, because this is a little bit of a chicken and egg thing.  Communities need small farms, yet small farms are under pressure and their continued existence is at risk if they do not have access to the full tax treatment under the current use program, which is a statewide program.  The chicken and the egg business is about do we wait for a crisis and lose our small farms or do we go to the legislature and fix the policy that we know does not work for today’s environment.  Which comes first, the loss of small farms or the fix – and if we wait too long, it is too late?

Can we live with this Thurston County only version?

Sure we can.  If someone had come to us out of the blue and said “would you like to test a current use program expansion in Thurston County?”  we would have said “heck yes!  Great opportunity, bring it on.”

But, that is not the sequence of events here.  We started out with a state-wide proposal because small farms all over the state are under pressure and it is our preference to get a state-wide proposal.

But being a current use test bed is not a bad thing either.  It will advance the public debate.  So we do not oppose the version that came out of House Finance.

Why the scaled down bill?

The bill as introduced  caused concerns in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, so it was amended to add an income requirement for very small farms.

The House Finance Committee then evaluated the legislation on the basis of the program’s effectiveness and administration.  Apparently there were concerns that  allowing small farms to apply for current use tax treatment for the land under and around their homes would create a workload issue for County Assessors.  There continued to be concerns regarding the viability of small farms and whether any nonfarmers could somehow take advantage of the program to the detriment of the public.  The County Assessors Association continued its opposition based on the tax shift.  The fiscal impact of the proposal also involves a loss of funds for some counties, and this is a concern to the committee, although this was not voiced at the hearing.

It is helpful to listen to the executive session on TVW.   HB 1437 is the second to the last bill, so scroll through most of the material.  You will see that this was a thoughtful process and that there are signals of more discussion to come.

Pay attention to the final vote – 12 to 1.  That means something.  This proposal has strong bi-partisan support.  We need that going forward.  We will need that in the Senate.

The Known Unknowns

It appears the legislature is not convinced about the importance of small farms in this state.  Those of us with personal knowledge regarding small farms might find this surprising, but it is fair to say that role of small farms as an emerging element of a healthy local economy is new information to some people.

County governments are making decisions about farmland preservation on a programmatic level.  They might not consider the current use program one of their “tools” and might be more interested in conservation futures or land use planning.  Current use pencils out to be a good investment because it keeps the land in private hands and requires little government input, aside from the Assessor’s office.  We need to remind the counties of this.

The Unknown Unknowns

The public policy debate is encouraging, even with the unknown unknowns.  Progress is measured in increments and success has many forms.  Expect the unexpected.

The Knowns

This proposal is in front of the legislature specifically because the legislature has control over this program.  What is being grappled with now is whether small farms are a state-wide concern or a local concern.

This is a process.  Brings facts and information to bear on any issues that need clarification.   Reach out.  Your legislators actually do want to hear from you.  Their constituents matter a great deal to them.  Contact them.  Get them specific information.  Contact us.  Lets talk.

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