Island County leaders press state for marijuana tax dollars

Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson

Island County leaders are banding together to pressure state leaders for their fair share of marijuana sale tax.

The move is part of a larger protest from law enforcement and county leaders from around the state who are tired of the state and federal government rolling out new requirements that counties have to find funding to implement and enforce.

“Counties are agents of the state,” said Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, who was on the capitol steps in Olympia Thursday advocating for increased funding for counties. “These things continue to thwart the counties’  abilities.”

Washington became the second state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2014 through bill I-502, but not all leaders are agreeing where the newly generated sales tax money should go.

For that reason, the Island County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition has sent a letter to legislators protesting the lack of local funding to local government. The state budget currently proposes giving counties and cities just 6 percent of all marijuana sales tax to share statewide.

“Once it gets to the local level, it’s going to be very low,” Price Johnson said.

Price Johnson said the coalition came together last year in response to a rise in property crime and drug abuse on the island; members want to be proactive about pot use.

The group believes 6 percent of the marijuana sales tax for counties is unreasonable and unfair.

“Of the eight mandates for legalized marijuana from the federal government, five fall to local governments,” said the letter signed by Langley Mayor Fred McCarthy, who is chairman of the coalition. “The new tax revenue generated from the emerging marijuana industry must be shared with local government in a way that reflects the responsibility reflected there.”

Commissioner Jill Johnson was personally against allowing marijuana to be grown and sold in Island County but eventually voted to support it to reflect the majority of county voters.

“When folks passed I-502 there was an expectation that the tax dollars being collected would aid in enforcement at the local level, for the state to take 94 percent of the revenue is counter to the desires of the voters,” Johnson said. “What the state is doing by continuing to take and reduce revenue that was originally split with counties is confounding. It’s like the legislature doesn’t realize that county government is an arm of the state and they are asking us to work for free. County costs for delivering service aren’t reducing, so why are our payments for providing those services being cut?”

Sheriff Mark Brown, who has worried about pot’s impact on public safety from the beginning, said he hopes to find a “workable” compromise that will give his department the resources they need to keep the county safe.

“I totally think the counties need to get this money and a large part of it should go toward enforcement,” Brown said. In addition, money should also be funneled into the health department for chemical dependency treatment and community education.

“There’s different areas this needs to be invested in,” Brown said.

Brown is also pushing for combining medical and recreational marijuana retailers to create a one-stop-shop scenario that would make enforcement simpler.

Price Johnson said the state has a history of sunsetting or rolling back tax funding to local governments, including those for alcohol sales and Medicaid reimbursement rates.

In response to that, Price Johnson said counties are also advocating for raising the cap on property tax increases. Currently counties can only raise property taxes by 1 percent per year, even as inflation and operating costs increase by 3-5 percent, Price Johnson said.

“If we don’t have the resources locally to (provide services), it’s going to be a big challenge,” Price Johnson said.