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Opinion >  Column

Spin Control: Tax votes aren’t an automatic no, this election showed

An article of faith among certain political “experts” says voters, given the chance, will always vote against taxes.

Tim Eyman has more or less made a profession of that premise, if creating initiatives as a way to raise money from a long list of sympathetic donors can be called a profession. Maybe it’s more of a career, or even a craft, like sculpting tree stumps into bears with a chain saw.

But whenever Eyman wins, as he did last week with what seemed to be his 407th car tab initiative, his opponents are wont to complain that Eyman has an advantage because people vote against taxes.

But other measures on last Tuesday’s ballot undercut that theory, and for them we also have Eyman to thank (or blame, depending on your feelings).

There were a dozen “Tax Advisory Votes” on the ballot that filled the front of the ballot and in some cases spilled over its back. The ballot measures, left over from another Eyman tax initiative, gave voters a chance to say whether they thought taxes passed earlier this year by the Legislature should be kept or dumped, and provide a good control group for any experiment on the voters’ knee jerk reaction to higher taxes.

Advisory votes are essentially meaningless. The Legislature has never taken the voters’ advice when they say a tax should be repealed; it does not pat its collective back when voters say a tax should be maintained. Voters also get limited information on what the tax does and a 10-year estimate of what it might collect, which critics argue artificially inflates its impact and pushes voters to fill in the repealed circle.

If that were true, however, all 12 advisory votes should have come in with a majority of “repeal” votes, by roughly the same percentages.

They didn’t. Some got a thumbs down by more than 60% of voters; others ranged in the mid-50% for repeal.

For three tax measures, significant majorities of voters said they should be maintained.

Those three showed a certain amount of discernment by voters, because in each case they were suggesting the Legislature keep taxes that on the surface probably don’t affect them significantly or that they might easily dislike.

Some 55% of voters said keep the change that limits the sales tax exemption for out-of-state shoppers and make them pay the tax up front, then ask for a refund. It is an article of law, as well as of faith, that voters don’t live out-of-state, so they couldn’t personally take advantage of that exemption.

Some 57% of voters said keep a tax on international investment management services, which falls on companies that have offices in at least eight foreign countries with at least 500 employees and gross revenue of more than $400 million. Not many Washington voters meet that description.

And more than 67% – that’s two out of three – said keep the new tax on vaping products. Maybe you could chalk some of those votes up to the fact that in the weeks before the election, vaping went from being a somewhat less annoying alternative to smoking to a fatal attraction. Or that vaping is particularly popular among teenagers, most of whom aren’t eligible to vote, and particularly unpopular with their parents.

Longtime political cognoscenti might be tempted to attribute these to that old adage: “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me. Tax the guy behind the tree.” That might explain why a higher tax on petroleum products, which we all use, had the highest repeal percentage at nearly 65%.

But that doesn’t account for voters ignoring the best example of that adage in the reverse, calling for a repeal of a tax that might save most of them money while sticking it to a relative few. That’s the change in the real estate excise tax, or Tax Advisory Vote No. 29.

The REET was changed from a flat rate to a graduated tax, so people who buy a house for less than $1.5 million will pay less than before, while those who buy a more expensive home – arguably those behind the tree or at least a nicely landscaped bush from most voters – will pay more. Voters would have had to follow the debate on that tax – which was, admittedly, rushed – or read the scant coverage of tax measures closely to know that.

Happy whatever you call it

Monday is Veterans Day, so some government offices are closed, no mail gets delivered and Spokane parking meters don’t have to be fed. It is also the 100th anniversary of the first celebration of its predecessor, Armistice Day, which ended World War I – or “The Great War”, as it was called when we didn’t have the foresight to number our world wars, but had bad sense to describe them as great.

Veterans For Peace has a campaign to change the name of the holiday back to Armistice Day, reclaiming it for what they said is its original intention, the cause of world peace. The local chapter will have a gathering at 11 a.m. Monday at the Community Building, 35 W. Main Ave.

Changing the name seems like a long shot; other veterans groups might see it as slighting their service in subsequent wars and peacetime service. Maybe we should make it a holiday only for veterans, requiring businesses and government offices to let anyone who can produce a DD 214 form or other proof of service to have a day off with pay and the rest of us work as a way to thank them for their service.

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