Backers of the two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases say they’re not trying to make tax increases impossible, just more difficult.
But this year’s first-ever “advisory” votes might call their motives into question. Those ballot measures were created by 2007’s Initiative 960, which reinstated the two-thirds tax-vote rule. But the same initiative ventured into the realm of public shaming, using the ballot as a political cudgel.
Here’s how: Lawmakers who want to increase taxes – and even closing a tax loophole qualifies – must do one of two things. They can try to summon support from two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate. Short of that, they can use a simple majority and put the increase before voters.
Proponents said this is necessary to force lawmakers to use tax increases as a last resort. If more money is needed – say, due to some emergency – lawmakers could certainly summon supermajority support.
Now, however, we see that the initiative contained a poison pill designed to warn lawmakers who might join in with two-thirds of their colleagues.
Even when Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, agree that a tax vote is valid – either because of revenue necessity or tax fairness – they will pay a political price.
At the very next election voters are presented with a question like this one, which will appear in November:
“The legislature extended, without a vote of the people, expiration of a tax on possession of petroleum products and reduced the tax rate, costing $24,000,000, in its first ten years, for government spending. This tax increase should be: Repealed (or) Maintained.”
The second advisory vote this fall will be on the closing of a tax break that benefited big, out-of-state mortgage banks. It passed by a combined 109-34 vote majority.
Dictating the language of the ballot question – including using phrases “without a vote of the people” and “for government spending” – makes this particular ballot question unique. (I guess legislators should be happy it doesn’t say “for waste, fraud and abuse.”)
So does the requirement that the revenue estimate be extended over 10 years in order to make the number as foreboding as possible.
In all other cases – initiatives, referenda, constitutional amendments – the state attorney general proposes ballot language. Proponents and opponents can then ask a judge to review that language to make it as factual and neutral as possible.
For example, supporters of the law to leave in place a tax on oil products that is used to remedy leaking underground storage tanks might ask a judge to let voters know that the combined legislative vote was 133-1. They might want them to know how the money is used other than “for government spending.”
But there is no court review under I-960. Only the biased ballot title dictated by tax opponents and the 10-year cost estimate go into the voters pamphlet. No pro and con statements are permitted.
And when Secretary of State Sam Reed proposed adding the text of the two tax measures – another common voters pamphlet feature – I-960 sponsor Tim Eyman threatened the entire voters pamphlet.
“Given the short timeframe, we hope to avoid litigation that would delay the printing of the voters’ pamphlet,” wrote attorney Richard Stephens on Eyman’s behalf.
State elections officials backed off.
The initiative does require one piece of information not normally found in the voters pamphlet – a list of the members of the House and Senate, their party affiliation, their contact information and how they voted on the measure.
The point should be clear to Eyman supporters and opponents alike: It is there so voters can know whom to punish, whom to scold.
In a 2007 letter to supporters, Eyman acknowledged the weaknesses in how the advisory vote is presented to voters. He wrote that if lawmakers want the “benefits” of the referendum – “pro and con arguments in the voters pamphlet, anonymity of your voting record, ‘marketing’ of your tax increase” – then put all tax hikes before the voters in a binding referendum.
It’s not like Washington voters have actual work to do this November. They’ll only elect a president and a governor, members of Congress and the Legislature. They’ll pass judgment on gay marriage and legalization of marijuana and creation of charter schools and on yet another Eyman initiative.
And now they’ll also get to give non-binding, after-the-fact advice on two tax measures that passed overwhelmingly and that won’t be repealed regardless of the results of the election.
How’s that for waste, fraud and abuse?