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Lawmakers propose sweeping reform for special purpose taxing districts after KING 5 investigation

The changes follow KING 5’s Money Down the Drain investigation that exposed flaws in elections and accountability for hundreds of special purpose governments.

Washington lawmakers are considering at least three bills to improve accountability in hundreds of “special purpose” taxing districts across Washington.

“They are not meeting their fiscal and transparency requirements,” said Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle), who chairs the House of Representatives Local Government Committee.

 On Friday, committee members held a work session to consider HB 2588  

In part, it would crack down on those governments that refuse to submit their financial records for a state audit, which is required by law.

The Washington State Auditor’s office has declared 38 governments in Washington “unauditable”, and dozens more are woefully behind on submitting their records. 

RELATED: State fraud report calls troubled King County drainage district 'unauditable'

“If a local government is unauditable they should not be receiving your tax money,” said Pollet.

The KING 5 Investigators series “Money Down the Drain” exposed one such special purpose government.

Pierce Drainage District. No. 23 has not been audited for 16 years, and it continues to collect tens of thousands of dollars per year from the few hundred landowners who live within the flood-control drainage system. The KING 5 Investigators found records showing the three elected commissioners have $1.3 million dollars in surplus funds held in a public account.

Pollet’s proposal – and SB 6324 sponsored by Senators Dean Takko (D-Longview) and Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle) – both propose to crack down on non-compliant districts by withholding their public funding. If they continue to impede the audit process, the district could be dissolved.

Lawmakers are also looking at elections irregularities exposed in the KING 5 stories.

“They are not under the same elections statutes that you or I are under,” Rep. Zack Hudgins (D-Tukwila) told the committee. Hudgins is sponsoring HB 2415.

Under a century-old law, some special purpose districts can run their own elections instead of the county elections department. KING 5’s stories showed how some district commissioners had not been on a ballot for decades but continued to collect and spend tax money.

RELATED: In rural King County, elected official answers to no one

“Doesn’t it make sense to put these elections on the same ballot that we have other elections on (and standardize the process)?” asked Rep. Vicki Kraft (R-Vancouver).

"That’s the goal of the bill we’re doing, is to bring more attention to these elections. I think when you have more participation, you get better government,” answered Hudgins.

His bill could place special purpose district elections in the same legal category as other elections that are held by cities, counties, and the state.

Currently, 100 irrigation districts, 104 diking and drainage districts and more than 40 conservation districts across Washington are legally allowed to conduct their own elections.

KING 5 uncovered drainage district commissioners in King and Pierce counties who have held office without a vote since the 1980s.

RELATED: Pierce County Council reviews 'special purpose' taxing districts after KING 5 investigation