Politics & Government

Washington state gas tax to increase despite voters’ thumbs down

Tim Eyman stands at the entrance to the Legislative Building on Feb 28, 2013.
Tim Eyman stands at the entrance to the Legislative Building on Feb 28, 2013. The Olympian

Washington voters rejected a gas-tax increase Tuesday by a 2-1 margin, but they will pay the tax anyway.

The measure was one of four advisory votes on the ballot and is nonbinding; it won’t stop the state gas tax from rising 11.9 cents per gallon, as the Legislature approved last summer. In fact, a 7-cent jump has already taken effect, with 4.9 cents to be added next July.

Revenues from the gas tax package will pay for big projects such as extending state Route 167 to the Port of Tacoma and widening Interstate 5 along Joint Base Lewis-McChord. It won bipartisan support from lawmakers last summer after years of debate.

Advisory votes are the brainchild of initiative promoter Tim Eyman. Voters required them for all tax increases as part of a 2007 Eyman measure.

The ballot questions for advisory votes don’t explain what higher taxes pay for, other than “government spending,” and they draw attention to how the Legislature imposed the taxes “without a vote of the people.” The not-so-neutral language makes it hard to draw conclusions from their outcomes.

Wording doesn’t doom all advisory votes. On Tuesday’s ballot, voters soundly rejected the gas tax and a package of business taxes that helped balance the state’s operating budget, and they were narrowly opposing taxes on oil transportation by railroad. But they gave big support to taxing marijuana.

A binding referendum on the gas-tax increase wasn’t possible because lawmakers declared an “emergency” in the law, the secretary of state’s office said. A ballot initiative, while still possible, is a tougher challenge requiring twice as many signatures as a referendum.

Tax hikes are less noticeable at the pump right now because they come at a time of low gas prices. And many voters fed up with Puget Sound traffic may feel more warmly about taxes upon learning which highway projects they pay for.

“There’s no groundswell of ‘We want to get rid of this’ coming from anybody that I’ve talked to, either side of the aisle,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, who led the effort for a transportation package along with Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima.

But Eyman said voters have figured out that lawmakers have “rigged the game” with tactics such as declaring emergencies, which is why he says advisory votes are needed.