First advisory vote on a tax hike may go on ballot

OLYMPIA — Washington election officials could soon make an unprecedented addition to this fall’s ballot: a first-ever statewide advisory vote on a tax increase.

A forgotten provision of a 2007 initiative may give voters the chance to weigh in on lawmakers’ decision earlier this year to eliminate a tax break for large banks to help balance the state budget.

Under that old measure, Initiative 960, the vote should be conducted to let voters say whether they agreed with the action of their elected officials. The decision by the voters guarantees nothing: it’s just advice for lawmakers.

Initiative author Tim Eyman has been waiting since 2007 to see this happen.

“It’s kind of cool that it only took five years for voters to get this right,” Eyman said.

Yet state officials are not saying if there will be such a vote.

The law sets an Aug. 1 deadline for Attorney General Rob McKenna to tell Secretary of State Sam Reed to prepare for an additional ballot measure. As of Tuesday, no notification had been given.

“We are aware of the advisory vote provision and its Aug. 1 date for advising the secretary of state of any bills subject to an advisory vote,” McKenna spokesman Dan Sytman said in an email Monday.

On Tuesday, Sytman reiterated that the department’s staff is still evaluating the requirements and not prepared to commit on a vote.

Eyman attributed their caution to this being the inaugural exercise of this provision.

“It’s the first time it’s ever been used. But the law is unambiguous. There’s no doubt this is a tax increase,” he said late Monday.

Initiative 960 required new or higher taxes to be approved by a two-thirds majority of the House and the Senate or by voters. It also mandated holding advisory votes on any tax enacted without voter approval.

Lawmakers may have forgotten about this element given all that’s transpired since 2007.

In early 2010, majority Democrats suspended the entire initiative then passed an omnibus tax bill to fill a huge hole in the state budget. Initiatives can be modified or suspended after two years on the books under state law.

Stung by the move, voters passed a separate measure in November to re-impose the rule that new taxes be approved by a supermajority vote of lawmakers. It’s in effect today.

That meant the suspension of Initiative 960 expired in July 2011, reviving the advisory vote provision.

Eyman said it was triggered when lawmakers passed Senate Bill 6635 on April 11, the final night of their second special session, and Gov. Chris Gregoire signed it into law May 2.

This law erased a tax break that allowed banks with locations in more than 10 states to avoid paying state business taxes on some of the interest earned on first mortgages on residential properties. As a result, a handful of large banks are now likely to pay higher taxes.

The advisory measure would ask voters if they want to maintain or repeal the law, Eyman said.

State election officials only learned of the advisory vote possibility last week. Up until now they’ve been planning for six statewide ballot measures — three initiatives, a referendum and two proposed constitutional amendments.

Tami Davis, voter education and outreach manager for state elections, said adding a seventh measure means enlarging the voter’s pamphlet mailed to the state’s 3.7 million registered votes.

Initiative 906 requires that ample information is provided in the statewide voters guide about the tax increase. That includes a description of the tax, a projection of its future costs, how each of the 147 lawmakers voted on the bill and their contact information.

Complying may add as many as six to eight pages at an estimated cost of $15,000 a page, Davis said. The exact amount of space needed won’t be known until it is clear how much information needs to be put in the voter guide.

“We’re waiting for clear guidance from the attorney general’s office,” said Dave Ammons, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office.

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