Olympia

Washington Voters Will Be Asked to Weigh In on New Taxes

The advisory measures are nonbinding, but the architect of the ballot items says they could change the conversation around future taxation.

Voters didn’t get to vote on the creation of new laws that will increase the state property tax next year and impose a sales tax on bottled water this week.

Instead, what they will get this November is an opportunity to weigh in on whether they think the lawmakers who passed those increases did the right thing. Or not.

These laws will be the subject of separate advisory measures on the general election ballot.

If you recall, such measures are nonbinding on legislators. They’ll be on the ballot courtesy of a provision in Initiative 960 dreamed up by Tim Eyman, of Mukilteo, and passed by voters in 2007. It says if lawmakers approve a tax increase without putting it to a vote then the electorate gets to offer its opinion after the fact.

These measures first showed up statewide in 2012. This year’s offerings are the 16th, 17th and 18th.

“I call this the tax increase report card,” Eyman said. “It’s a way to find out what people think.”

In 2015, nearly two-thirds of voters gave a thumbs-down to the big gas tax increase lawmakers passed to fund road improvements. But 59 percent gave a thumbs-up to new marijuana taxes and a slim 51.3 percent backed a boost in the tax per barrel of oil to pay for added safety measures related to oil trains.

Eyman’s critics call the advisory measures a waste of time and money. It will cost a small pile of tax dollars for the Secretary of State’s Office to produce material on the measures for voter pamphlets and to mail those pamphlets to every registered voter in Washington.

He calls it a small price to pay to learn how folks feel about billions of dollars in tax increases.

This year is even more unique as voters will get a shot at embracing or rejecting the financing approach lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee agreed upon to satisfy a state Supreme Court ruling on school funding.

One advisory measure concerns House Bill 2242, the blueprint for complying with the mandates in the McCleary case. The 120-page bill lays out how the state intends to amply fund public schools, reform the use of local property tax levies by school districts and absorb the responsibility of paying classroom teachers.

It calls for pushing the statewide property tax up to a flat rate of $2.70 per $1,000 of assessed value, about 81 cents higher than this year’s rate. This will bring in roughly $1.6 billion in this two-year budget cycle and $13 billion over 10 years, all for schools.

Another advisory measure concerns House Bill 2163, a collection of tax changes affecting online retailers, bottled-water buyers and fuel producers. It is projected to generate $73 million for this budget and $565 million over 10 years.

For each measure, voters will be asked if they would repeal or maintain the increase.

While the conventional wisdom is that most of the state’s voteres dislike taxes, the advice coming from voters this fall may not be as predictable as one might think.

Results of an Elway Poll released Tuesday found slight support among voters right now for the property tax increase and other big pieces of the education funding blueprint.

If the results of the advisory vote reveal opposition to either or both taxes, Eyman is convinced it would deter legislators from tinkering with any new taxes next year.

And Eyman argued it could even help Inslee as well. He pointed out that the governor recently told News-Tribune reporter Melissa Santos that if Democrats pick up an open Senate seat this fall and recapture control of the Legislature, he’d like to roll back some of the increase.

“If the advisory vote ends up going against (the property tax), it’s certainly going to give him some fodder for what he’s talking about,” Eyman said of Inslee.

jcornfield@heraldnet.com

A version of this story was originally published in the Everett Herald.

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