Washington voters soundly rejected in non-binding advisory votes three tax measures approved by the state legislature this session. But it remains to be seen which political party this will benefit come January.
While Democrats, now in control of all three chambers, could use the rejection of a property tax mechanism to pay for basic education as justification to replace it with a capital gains income tax or a carbon tax, Republicans may point to the rejection of all the tax increases as a desire for overall fiscal restraint. However, others warn not to put much stock in advisory vote outcomes.
Advisory votes were created in 2007 as a response to the state legislature’s use of emergency clauses on new tax legislation to circumvent the referendum process.
This election, voters opted to reject the following measures:
- (62-38) A property-tax swap intended to help the state meet its basic education funding mandate under the State Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision. The move shifted much of the state’s tax burden primarily to districts with higher property values.
- (65-35) Eliminating an existing tax exemption for bottled water and extracted fuels, as well as an online sales tax. The latter was used to help balance the state’s 2017-19 operating budget.
- (57-43) A tax increase on commercial fishing licenses to fund the state’s wildfire account.
The first vote outcome may be championed by Democrats aiming to undo the tax mechanism used as part of the McCleary solution compromise for the 2017-19 biennial budget. In a special election race in the 45th legislative district, Democrat Manka Dhingra defeated Republican candidate Jinyoung Lee Englund, unraveling the Senate Majority Coalition’s one-member control of the chamber.
Like other Democrats in both houses, Dhingra has previously declared support for a capital gains income tax to pay for K-12 rather than a property tax-swap. In an interview with the Tacoma News Tribune, Governor Jay Inslee also called the tax swap a “Republican mistake.”
But replacing one tax with another is not the message voters sent, says Tim Eyman. He was the sponsor of Initiative 970 in 2007, which first created the tax advisory vote. In an email newsletter, he wrote that “One suburban Senate seat going from red to blue does not mean voters suddenly want higher taxes.” The “results from the tax advisory votes show that.”
He told Lens that “it’s pretty striking all three types of taxes that they passed this session were repudiated by the voters.” It was their way of saying, “Hey guys we’re tapped out. We can’t take anymore. The remedy for raising taxes is not by raising taxes again.”
WPC’s Education Center Director Liv Finne told Lens that the vote also indicated that Washingtonians don’t think K-12 requires additional money. Since 2012, the state has invested $5 billion in new spending toward basic education. The property tax swap is expected to raise an additional $13 billion over a 10 year-period.
The talk within the legislature and the State Supreme Court about a lack of education spending has little to do with the reality for taxpayers, Finne said.
“The whole thing is absurd,” she said.
Voter history on new taxes to pay for education seems to bear this out. Between 1973 and 2010, the legislature proposed five new taxes specifically to fund education; all were rejected by a two-third margin or more.
Washington voters often reject new taxes in the form of advisory votes that go beyond education funding. During the 2015 election, they opposed an oil spill prevention tax and a medical marijuana patient database fee.
However, some observers note that tax advisory vote results can be difficult to interpret precisely. Unlike regular measures or referendums, there are no organized campaigns in favor or against it. Under state law, the tax description is restricted to 33 words or less.
But Eyman believes the tax advisory votes “are an opportunity for you be able to get a little more direct information from the electorate. It gives the voters a chance to be able to highlight ‘Hey, just ‘cause I voted for you doesn’t mean I’m handing my checkbook over to you.’”
Other statehouse observers note that Democrats may be disinclined to introduce major spending or tax proposals to avoid alienating fiscally conservative members of the party. Much of that potential apprehensive stems from the 2012 legislative session in which a trio of moderate Senate Democrats crossed the aisle to form the Senate Majority Coalition in response to the budget proposals coming out of both chambers. One of those legislators was then-Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48), who cited the results of an advisory vote when discussing the nuance between political party success at the ballot box and voter attitudes on single issues.
Inslee is expected to unveil his budget proposals by December 20.