On Wednesday, King County Superior Court Judge Mary Roberts ruled in rather scant fashion that the "payment in lieu of tax" (PILT) component of Washington State Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1287 is unconstitutional. That bill was heralded as an advancement in state-tribal tax policy, as it created parity for tribal governments as to fee lands they own and use for government revenue-raising purposes. The decision was handed down in City of Snoqualmie v. King County, which the City filed in October 2014 against King County and its officials as well as the State and its Department of Revenue, after the County negotiated a PILT to be paid by the Muckleshoot Tribe to the County regarding the Tribe's Salish Lodge.
The PILT was part of an MOU between the County and the Tribe by which the Tribe agreed to a $103,00 in PILT in 2015 for the Salish Lodge, despite the fact that governments do not typically tax other governments any amount of money (unless of course the taxed governments are tribal).
The City had always opposed House Bill 1287, fearing lost property taxes on the Lodge (which the lawsuit estimates to be $25,000 compounded by 1% annually) and speculating about an additional "$428,000-plus revenue loss" due to rumored development plans by the Muckleshoot and Snoqualmie Tribes.
Specifically, Judge Roberts ruled House Bill 1287 unlawful per Article VII of the state Constitution because a PILT "is not imposed at an equal tax rate and does not produce equality in valuing the property taxed."
Further, the Judge ruled that insofar as House Bill 1287 "unlawfully delegates [taxing] authority to Indian tribes and/or the State Department of Revenue," Section 8 of the bill "violates Article VII Section 1’s command that 'the power of taxation shall never be surrendered, suspended or contracted away. [sic]"
The ruling came down quickly on cross-summary judgment motions brought by the City and Revenue. Judge Roberts denied the City's summary judgment request on its public records act claims against Revenue, but those claims could be withdrawn or settled so that the PILT ruling can proceed to appeal.
Hopefully Washington's appellate courts will restore property tax parity amongst our state's sovereigns.
Gabriel “Gabe” Galanda is the Managing Partner at Galanda Broadman. He is a citizen of the Round Valley Indian Tribes. Gabe can be reached at 206.300.7801 or firstname.lastname@example.org.