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November 11, 2013 at 6:00 AM

I liked those tax-advisory votes

(William Brown / Tribune Media Services)

(William Brown / Tribune Media Services)

I don’t share the media cynicism about the five tax-advisory questions the people of Washington voted on last week. Media folks are parroting politicians, and politicians have motives that are different from those of ordinary people.

It’s true that the advisory votes don’t determine anything. The tax is in effect already. If the people vote “Repeal,” the tax is not repealed.

Why have a vote, then? To tell the voter, who hasn’t been paying attention to this stuff, that there have been tax increases. How many people knew that there had been five such increases, or tax breaks erased, in the 2013 legislative session? Not one in 100 knew this. Three of the five changes were tiny taxes and four applied only to a few people. Still, they were increases that added up to hundreds of millions of dollars over 10 years, and the Voters Pamphlet told citizens about them.

“They made people think. How can that not be good?” says Tim Eyman. The advisory votes were last defined and put into law in Eyman’s Initiative 1185, which voters supported in 2012. The other part of 1185 was the rule that the Legislature required two-thirds of both houses to raise taxes, or a simple majority plus a vote of the people. The Washington Supreme Court nullified that part. The advisory votes are all that’s left of this measure to slow down tax increases.

Initiative 1185 includes a part of the Voter’s Pamphlet that lists the legislators and how they voted on tax increases. For example, in the 26th district, you could see that Sen. Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, and his challenger, Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, had voted “Yes” on the three little increases. They had voted “No” on the increase in the telephone tax, a fairly substantial increase that affected a lot of people. On the retroactive enactment of an estate tax, a big increase to a small group of people, Schlicher had voted “Yes” and Angel had voted “No.”

Was that worth knowing? Maybe it was, if you were in the 26th district.

You can argue that ordinary voters don’t understand tax measures very well, and probably you’d be right, but the voters did make distinctions between these five issues. As I write, the partial results show the repeal of the leasehold excise tax credit at 51.6 percent  yes, the aircraft excise tax at 52.6 percent yes and the pediatric oral services measure at 61.3 percent no. (The actual choices on the ballot were “Maintain” and “Repeal,” but they meant “yes” and “no.”) The telephone tax was at 53.2 percent no and the estate tax at 50.4 percent yes.

Also, if you look at a map of the results, you see the familiar pattern of the conservative and progressive counties. The estate tax, which is favored by progressives, is passing in King, San Juan, Jefferson, Thurston, Whatcom, Kitsap and Snohomish counties, in that order. This entirely non-random lineup suggests that voters knew what they were doing.

How deep voters went into the five tax measures I don’t know — I expect not too deep — but they did think about them enough to vote in line with their general political points of view.

Here at The Times we keep track of how many Internet “hits” we get on articles—and in the week before ballot-counting day, we had hundreds of hits every day on our editorial recommending how to vote on these five advisory questions. People really did think about them (even if they didn’t follow our recommendations).

Were the questions a waste? By my calculations, the $130,000 cost to put these on the ballot works out to 3 cents for each citizen who voted in the 2012 elections. Worth it? It depends on who you are. If you’re a politician who doesn’t want to explain how you voted, it was a terrible, terrible waste. Maybe if you’re a voter, it was worth it.

Comments | Topics: advisory votes, initiative 1185, taxes


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