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AGO 1955 No. 163 - November 17, 1955
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Don Eastvold | 1953-1956 | Attorney General of Washington


Sales of realty to the state or any of its political subdivisions after June 23, 1955, do not have the effect of discharging tax liens existing as of the time of such sales.  Taxes which have been assessed but not levied at the time of such sales may be cancelled by county boards of equalization.

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                                                               November 17, 1955

Honorable Paul A. Klasen, Jr.
Prosecuting Attorney
Grant County Court House
Ephrata, Washington                                                                                                              Cite as:  AGO 55-57 No. 163

Attention:  Mr. Gary Box, Deputy

Dear Sir:

            We have your request for an opinion on the following questions:

            1. Is the proviso in section 3, chapter 112, Laws of 1955, inconsistent with chapter 5, Laws of 1955, Ex. Sess.?

            2. If they are inconsistent, which one prevails?

            3. If they are not inconsistent, what is the rationale in reconciling them?

            Your first question is answered in the negative so the second question does not require an expression of our opinion.  The answer to your third question is contained in the analysis.

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]


            Chapter 112, Laws of 1955, provides a procedure for cancellation of uncollectible taxes.  Section 3 of this act gives the county boards of equalization certain powers and duties to perform at its April meetings.  It then sets forth in a proviso:

            "* * *Provided, That the board shall cancel all unpaid taxes upon property which belongs exclusively to the state, any county or municipal corporation.  * * *"

            Amendment Fourteen of the state constitution exempts property of the United States, the state, counties, school districts, and other municipal corporations from taxation.

            Our supreme court has held that realty is not subject to taxation where the state or a municipal corporation acquires it prior to the levy of taxes.  Puget Sound Power & Light Company v. Cowlitz County, 38 Wn. (2d) 907.  InGasaway v. Seattle, 52 Wash. 444, and Bellingham v. Whatcom County, 40 Wn. (2d) 669, it was held that a county cannot enforce a tax lien against property acquired by the state or a city through eminent domain proceedings.  InHalversen v. Pacific County, 22 Wn. (2d) 532, it was held that a tax lien imposed on land while held in private ownership is not enforceable against the state after title has reverted to the state, because the lien has merged with the title.

            The apparent purpose of chapter 112, Laws of 1955, is to permit county boards of equalization to correct the tax rolls by cancelling taxes on property which is exempted from taxation by reason of its ownership by the state or a municipal corporation.  Chapter 5, Laws of 1955, Ex. Sess., provides as follows:

            "Any sale of real property to the state of Washington, or to any of its political subdivisions or agencies, shall not be valid as against the lien of any tax or assessment levied by any county, municipal corporation, or other tax or assessment levying public body, when the lien of such tax or assessment has attached  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] to the property prior to the sale, and any such tax or assessment lien may be enforced against the property sold in the same manner as if the property were owned by a private person."

            Thus the legislature has decreed that when the state or a political subdivision purchases property against which there is a valid tax lien the title passessubject to such lien.

            Clearly this constitutes a substantive change in the law with respect to the nature of the title acquired in such transactions.  To apply this statute retroactively would interfere with vested rights of the state and political subdivisions which have acquired property encumbered with tax liens prior to the effective date of the act.  InGillis v. King County, 42 Wn. (2d) 373, the court stated at page 376:

            "A statute may not be given retroactive effect, regardless of the intention of the legislature, where the effect would be to interfere with vested rights.  * * *"

            See, also, cases cited therein.

            We conclude that chapter 5, Laws of 1955, Ex. Sess., does not apply to sales made to the state or political subdivisions prior to June 23, 1955.  Nor will this chapter affect any sales made prior to the time taxes are levied even though the property may have been sold subsequent to assessment day.  In these cases the county boards of equalization may cancel the taxes pursuant to chapter 112, Laws of 1955.  There is therefore, in our opinion, no conflict between the two 1955 enactments.

            We hope the foregoing analysis will prove helpful.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Assistant Attorney General

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