Catherine Berwicks loads ballots into a tray after scanning them at the Snohomish County Elections Ballot Processing Center on Aug. 4, 2020 in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald file photo)

Catherine Berwicks loads ballots into a tray after scanning them at the Snohomish County Elections Ballot Processing Center on Aug. 4, 2020 in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Boot meaningless tax ‘advisory’ measures from ballots

The public needs better transparency on taxes; not an opaque push poll that serves no purpose.

By The Herald Editorial Board

For about a decade now, Washington state voters have had the opportunity to vote to “repeal” or “maintain” specific taxes that the state Legislature approved and the governor signed in the previous year.

Or so the voters may have thought.

In nearly every election since 2012, voters have participated in 40 advisory votes related to the taxes that the state levies.

For example, in last year’s election, voters were asked if they wanted to repeal or maintain a 7-cent increase in the aviation fuel tax; and a requirement that ride-share companies, such as Lyft and Uber, pay premiums into the state’s worker compensation system for its drivers. In both instances, a majority voted for repeal.

Both taxes, however, are still on the books and still being collected. What gives?

Initiative 960, passed by voters in 2007, established “advisory” votes for all taxing legislation adopted by the Legislature. But there’s little that’s truthfully advisory about the ballot measures; there’s no requirement that lawmakers comply with — or even pay much attention to — the number of votes to “repeal” or “maintain” those taxes.

Unlike a legitimate advisory vote — one that’s taken prior to the action of a governmental body — the tax “advisory” votes don’t require any action by state lawmakers and don’t inform them prior to a particular vote; they are little more than a public opinion poll. And the ballot language — noting pointedly that lawmakers adopted the tax “without a vote of the people” makes the measure no better than the least accurate of polls, “push polls,” written to prod the person to a particular response.

Senate Bill 5082 would repeal the tax advisory votes in favor or pointing voters to better information on taxes, the revenue they produce and how that money is used.

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, who with Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, are chief sponsors of the bill, noted during a Jan. 10 committee hearing, that Washington is the only state in the nation with such “advisory” votes.

That’s not a point of pride.

“There’s a reason for that,” she said. “They do more harm than good and they do not belong on our ballot,” she said.

The “advisory” votes, Kuderer said, are a prime example of government “waste, fraud and abuse.”

The ballot measures cost state taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, she said, just by adding to the length of the state’s voters guide. Last year, the two measures took up 18 of the guide’s 24 pages to explain each, with related information, including how each lawmaker had voted.

Yet even in those 18 pages, there was little information that provided useful insight to the public. Both the ballot language and the voters guide are lacking in context or detail on how the revenue from a specific tax will be used. Voters see only what is generally being taxed and what the tax is estimated to raise over a 10-year period, but aren’t told where the money is going, beyond a vague description of “government spending.”

In exchange for a poor and costly attempt at transparency, the advisory measures confuse and discourage voters.

Even after a decade, the advisory measures haven’t seemed to impress the voters they seek to inform and give voice to.

Andrew Villeneuve of the Bothell-based Northwest Progressive Institute, speaking in support of the legislation, pointed to a survey of 610 likely voters in October of 2020 it commissioned that found 42 percent favored repeal of the tax advisory measures, with 22 percent preferring to keep the measures and 35 percent uncertain of their value.

Rather than simply getting rid of the advisory votes, the legislation also calls for the state’s Office of Financial Management to provide a website with summaries of the state’s operating, capital and transportation budgets; a pie chart showing state spending for the most recent two-year budget period; a table charting state and local spending; and fiscal impact statements for legislation affecting state revenue. The website address and a QR code in the state voters guide would direct the public to that information.

Yet another legislative proposal, Senate Bill 5158, would offer further transparency by detailing for all residents a comprehensive look at all state and local taxes, including the more than 1,800 junior taxing districts in the state.

Backed by the Washington Policy Center, the bill would complement the state’s existing budget website —, which provides details on proposed and adopted spending plans — by providing information on each household’s or business’ taxes, said Jason Mercier, the policy center’s director for its Center for Government Reform, in a recent interview with The Herald Editorial Board.

“As a taxpayer, I just know I’m paying. I don’t know what I’m paying to the county, to the city, the sewer district, the library district, the feds; so it’s really hard to evaluate the level of service for the amount we’re investing,” Mercier said. A typical address might be part of 10 or more taxing districts.

The legislation would add a new page, updated each year, to the state’s budget website that would plainly show the taxing districts for a specific address and a calculator that would estimate the total tax liability for that address, even allowing comparison among counties, cities and neighborhoods.

Support remains for the advisory votes as a way for voters to express their support or objection to lawmakers’ decisions on taxes.

“Voters passed this. We knew what we wanted,” said Aaron Lang, a southwest Washington resident commenting remotely during the hearing. Lang suggested keeping the advisory measures but reforming the law to improve ballot language and provide better information.

That the legislation seeks to repeal a voter-approved initiative is a valid concern. Lawmakers should not seek to repeal such citizen-approved laws lightly.

However, after a decade of the law’s use in elections, it has not performed as voters envisioned. Instead, its unintended consequences in its costs and misuse are now clear and warrant action to repeal it and provide better ways to increase transparency regarding taxes.

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