Washington Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz proposed Monday taxing insurance policies to raise $63 million a year to prevent and fight wildfires.
The $5-per-policy tax would apply to home, auto and other types of property and casualty insurance. The proposal varies only slightly from one that insurance companies successfully opposed last year.
Franz said the money would allow the Department of Natural Resources to carry out long-range plans to thin forests and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
“Strategic plans are only as good as the funding that comes forward to implement them. Otherwise, they are simply piles of paper on a shelf,” she said at a press conference in Tumwater.
Franz last year backed a proposal to raise the tax that insurance companies pay on gross receipts.
Insurance companies argued that a tax on their revenue would force them and their customers to pay for something that benefits everyone. Northwest Insurance Council President Kenton Brine said Monday that directly taxing policy holders was no better.
“People are not going to be thrilled about getting higher taxes right now,” he said. “You can’t get a more regressive tax than this one.”
Franz said that the tax could pay for 42 more firefighters, 15 more firetrucks and crew leaders, one helicopter and more training for volunteer firefighters. The money also could fund forest thinning, controlled burns, replanting burned areas and other measures to protect property.
As proposed, the money could not be tapped, or raided, for emergency fire suppression. The DNR annually asks lawmakers for a separate appropriation to cover the actual costs of fighting fires.
House Environmental Committee Chairman Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, said he will introduce a bill to impose the tax and direct its spending.
Fitzgibbon said climate change will make wildfires worse and that preventing blazes will be less expensive than fighting them.
“This is an approach that will save us money in the long run,” Fitzgibbon said.
Representatives from the Washington Fire Chiefs, The Nature Conservancy and American Lung Association endorsed the proposal at the press conference. There were no Republicans there.
Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, joined Franz a year ago to support a wildfire-spending plan. The idea of taxing insurance policies came later.
“There was a lot of pushback on that, me included,” Dent said Monday.
Dent said he still back many of Franz’s ideas for spending the money, but he opposes raising taxes.
“I think there is plenty of money,” Dent said. “We need to narrow down our priorities.”
Without raising taxes on insurance companies, lawmakers this year appropriated about $38 million in the current two-year budget for fire prevention and suppression by the DNR.
Besides arguing that it was unfair to single them out to pay for fire prevention, insurance companies said higher taxes would put them at a disadvantage in selling policies in other states.
A DNR spokesman said the agency tried to alleviate the concern by directly taxing policy holders.
Brine said the industry is still concerned about having to collect the the tax and how the revenue will be interpreted by tax and insurance regulators in other states.