No teeth in advisory votes

There are five advisory measures on the November ballot, and their value is (how to put this without sounding like a civic hangdog?) meaningless. The votes are non-binding (electoral-speak for inconsequential) but required by Tim Eyman’s Initiative 960, passed by Washington voters in 2007.

I-960, defanged by the state Supreme Court of the requirement of a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to hike taxes, mandates advisory votes on any tax enacted without voter approval. The butter-vs.-margarine parsing between a tax and a fee: According to the attorney general’s office, a tax increases state tax revenue deposited into any fund, budget or account. And a fee? It’s as clear as smoke.

In the state’s first-ever advisory votes in 2012, Washingtonians rejected ending a tax break for large banks (!) and extending the fuel tax paid by oil refineries. The people’s curious, non-populist message to the Legislature: Hands off Big Oil and Big Banks, taxman.

Fortunately, the non-binding vote had all the impact of a North Korean plebiscite.

The civic challenge of advisory measures is the dearth of information in the voter’s pamphlet, with an inscrutable, brief description minus the usual explanatory statement, fiscal-impact statement and arguments for or against. That’s how initiative drafters designed it, of course. Voters spot the word “tax” and quickly channel Mark Twain, who argued that the only difference between a tax man and a taxidermist is that the taxidermist leaves the skin.

All five measures this year merit a “maintain” vote, just as they require more information to comprehend. Consider this description of the likely-to-lose Advisory Vote No. 6: “The legislature eliminated, without a vote of the people, a retail sales tax exemption for certain telephone and telecommunications services, costing approximately $397,000,000 in the first ten years, for government spending.”

The back story: The exemption for land lines (that’s what’s meant by “certain telephone and telecommunications services”) is grossly outdated and would need to extend to cell service as well. The “tax” revenue, FYI, is dedicated to basic education. And without the exemption, taxpayers would be hit with a $1 billion out-of-pocket liability.

To add insult to irony, the incremental costs of these pointless votes on taxes will cost taxpayers $140,000, according to the Secretary of State’s office, filling 10 pages of the state’s 32-page voter pamphlet.

The other measures include a needed fix to the estate tax (which again, already has been mended) and tax rules related to commuter air carriers, dental coverage and leasing publicly owned property.

Vote “maintain” and then contact your legislators. Tell them to either mandate more voter information or jettison advisory measures altogether.

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