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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Initiative support tepid in poll

Voters remain unsure on tax issues that dominate ballot measures

Washington voters may be experiencing initiative overload this year with a near-record number of ballot measures.

They can stage a “tax revolt” by lifting new taxes imposed by the Legislature in April or reinstate a two-thirds supermajority for any tax increase. They can also impose an income tax on people who make more than $200,000.

They could get state government out of the liquor business or change the industrial insurance system.

But a recent poll for The Spokesman-Review and the Seattle Times by Elway Research Inc. suggests voters aren’t completely sold on any of those citizens initiatives. All have more support than opposition, but none has a majority of voters saying they planned to vote for them in a survey of 500 local voters conducted from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12.

“There is a lot for voters to have to sort through,” pollster H. Stuart Elway said. “Several of these are pretty arcane.”

Having a healthy majority in September is often a key to victory in November, Elway said. Once the opposition campaigns start, yes votes tend to drop and undecided voters switch to no.

The 2004 ballot had five initiatives, he said. The two that were way above 50 percent in a similar September poll passed in November; the three that were below 50 percent failed.

This year, the three tax proposals have the fewest undecided voters in the poll and may be the easiest for them to understand, based on interviews with some people who took part in the survey.

On I-1053, which would reinstate the two-thirds majority needed in both houses of the Legislature to pass a tax increase, 48 percent said they will definitely or probably vote for the limitation. But one voter in four remains undecided.

That may come as a surprise to supporters and opponents. Some version of the supermajority passed previously in other forms, and it was the law for two years until being suspended by Democrats in the Legislature this spring. An earlier Elway poll pegged its support at about 65 percent, and Gov. Chris Gregoire seemed to concede its likely success last week.

“I’m not under any illusion that (I-1053) will fail,” she said when talking about the prospect of raising taxes next year to help with the state’s budget woes.

It does have majority support in Eastern Washington and the north Puget Sound counties.

I-1107 would repeal temporary taxes on candy, soda, bottled water and some processed foods the Legislature imposed last spring to help balance the budget. It, too, was slightly under a majority in the poll, with 47 percent saying they’d definitely or probably vote yes and 38 percent saying definitely or probably no.

That makes Elway wonder if talk of a widespread tax revolt among voters is overblown: “If this is supposed to be a tax revolt, why are these not doing better? The election may be more about accountability.”

But the fate of the tax initiatives may hinge on how many people who identify with the tea party movement go to the polls, or a surge among voters for one major party or the other.

The survey indicates a sharp split on all three among those who say they agree with the movement on most or some issues, and those who agree with it on no or almost no issues. I-1053 and I-1107 both have strong majorities among those who agree with tea party issues, while I-1098, which would place an income tax on individuals who make more than $200,000 or couples who make more than $400,000, has strong majorities among those who don’t.

Similarly, Republicans are more likely to vote to reinstate the tax increase supermajority and repeal the consumer taxes, while Democrats are more likely to vote for the income tax.

Income taxes have a poor track record in state elections, but the poll shows voters statewide about evenly split, with 44 percent saying they’ll definitely or probably vote for it and 42 percent saying they’ll definitely or probably vote no.

The income tax proposal enjoys its strongest support in King County and northern Puget Sound, but nowhere is it over 50 percent. It has more opposition than support in Eastern Washington and in Pierce and Kitsap counties, and it loses support with voters as income increases.

While the tax proposals may be relatively easy to understand, the other three may be confusing more voters. Two would end the state monopoly on retail liquor sales and wholesale distribution.

Gwen Konynenbelt, a Spokane-area medical technician who participated in the survey, said she thinks free enterprise can probably do a better job than state government when it comes to liquor sales but will have to study the differences between I-1100 and I-1105 before voting.

Not surprising, said Elway. The ballot language of the two measures is very similar.

I-1100 is supported by large retailers such as Costco because they can set up their own distribution system, while I-1105 is supported by wholesalers that want to replace the state system with private distributors.

It might be simpler to call I-1100 the Costco initiative to distinguish it from I-1105, Elway said. But unless some campaign finds a way to draw a clear distinction, the numbers for both proposals are so close across different regions and demographics it seems likely they’ll both pass or both fail.

I-1082, which would allow private insurance companies to offer industrial insurance, seems to be creating the most confusion among voters. In the poll, voters were evenly split with 31 percent saying they’d definitely or probably vote yes, and 31 percent saying definitely or probably no. The largest segment, however, was the 38 percent saying they were undecided.

It’s common to see large blocks of undecided voters before the ballots and voter pamphlets arrive in the mail, Elway said. “Many people like to sit down and read and try to make sense out of all of it.”

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