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Thu., July 18, 2013

Editorial: Real impact of ballot’s advisory votes murky

The ballot for this off-year election got a lot fatter Tuesday when Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson determined the Legislature enacted five tax increases that should be subject to advisory votes.

This will be the second go-round for the advisories, which have all the weight of an elephant in outer space. No matter how overwhelmingly voters reject tax legislation after the fact, results do not overturn the law.

But the outcome, according to initiative impresario Tim Eyman, puts legislators on notice. The votes of each one on each piece of tax legislation must be included on the ballot so they can be held to account. That remains to be seen.

Last year, there were two advisory votes on the ballot. The Legislature had taken away a business and occupation tax exemption on mortgages made by out-of-state banks and extended a pollution tax. A total of only five votes were cast against the two bills by representatives and senators.

In a vote only Wall Street could love, both would have overturned: 55 percent to 44 percent. And that was that. This year’s Legislature never reconsidered the two levies.

Instead, knowing they had to come up with another $1 billion for K-12 education, lawmakers sinned again, at least by Eyman’s lights.

Most egregiously, they modified telecommunication and estate taxes so they are applied more fairly. Over 10 years, the result will be another $875 million in revenues.

The other three measures dealt with dental plans, assessments of public property and commuter air carriers. There is no estimate on what revenue, if any, the dental plan law will yield. The other two will generate a total $2 million throughout 10 years.

For this biennium, the changes represent about one-half of 1 percent of the $33.6 billion state budget.

Eyman’s response is “gulp,” but the outcome after six months and two special sessions probably was as good as it was going to get without more cuts to social services. In November, voters can make their own call.

Again, to what effect, whether in support or rejection? Unless the courts nix the estate tax change because it is retroactive, the Legislature is unlikely to revisit those five tax votes.

Eyman likens the advisory votes to report cards and, in 2014, political ads may well use them to refer ominously to an incumbent’s tax-raising propensities. But only the Senate and House votes on the estate tax changes did not achieve the two-thirds supermajority Eyman would like written into the Washington Constitution.

Legislators did not need advisory votes to clue them into voter sensitivities regarding higher taxes. A much-needed transportation bill got nowhere because of the gasoline tax increases that were part of the package.

Eyman is correct in condemning the passage of these measures as “emergencies.” The bigger problem is opacity of a budget-making process that largely confines public “advisory” testimony to hasty committee hearings that are an embarrassment to open government.

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