Public Advisory Votes on November Ballot Are Tailored to Deceive

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Public Advisory Votes on November Ballot Are Tailored to Deceive

By - October 22, 2013

You don’t have to look any further than the November ballot to see the consequences of the deceptive “advisory vote of the people” law, which was purposefully designed to mislead the public and undermine any action taken by policymakers to maintain funding for schools, health care, public safety, and other investments that promote a strong state economy.

Created by Tim Eyman and other conservative ideological interests, these votes are meant to deny voters an informed and balanced discussion of state taxes. Consequently, policymakers should draw no conclusions about the outcome of five advisory votes included on this year’s ballot.

Under the law, any action taken by lawmakers that increases state tax revenues must appear on the next general election ballot for an advisory vote, unless the revenue increase was placed on the ballot as part of a public referendum measure.  It is important to note that these measures are nonbinding, meaning, no matter what the outcome is, the law will not be changed as a result of the advisory vote. In other words, even if a majority of voters opt to repeal a tax change, the change will remain in place.

Given that they have no impact on state law or previously enacted tax changes, it is clear that the only reason advisory votes were included in Eyman’s broader initiatives was to distort the public dialogue on taxes and the investments they support, and to dissuade policymakers from making any reasonable changes to our flawed tax system. That much is clear from the rules that governs public advisory votes, which:

  • Prohibits balanced information in the voters’ guide: To help voters make informed decisions, the voters’ guide normally includes important information on state ballot measures, such as a complete description from the Attorney General of how the measure would alter state law, a full description of the measure’s impact on taxes and spending from the Office of Financial Management, and statements from supporters and opponents of the measure. But the Secretary of State is expressly prohibited from publishing such information on advisory vote measures in the voters’ guide.
  • Mandates biased, overly simple ballot titles and descriptions: The law requires every advisory vote ballot title to describe tax policy changes, which are often minor but legally complex, with limited and biased language. Ballot titles must include the boilerplate language, “The legislature enacted, without a vote of the people, [insert 13-word policy description], costing $X million in its first ten years, for government spending.” Not only does this restrictive language portray every tax policy change in a negative light, it also says very little about the actual change at issue, which is restricted to just 13 words.
  • Prohibits  information on how new tax revenues are invested: The law prohibits any meaningful description of what additional tax revenues were used for, no matter how worthy or popular the cause. Whether the funds were used to pay for mental health services or smaller class sizes for school children, the only language permitted is the loaded phrase “for government spending.”
  • Requires deceptively inflated cost estimates: Advisory votes must include 10-year cost estimates for tax policy changes and, as we’ve written previously, these estimates are often unreliable and misleading. By showing the cumulative impact over 10 years, rather than the annual or biannual estimates that are considered more reliable , these estimates make even the smallest of tax changes appear deceptively large.
  • Misleads the public by excluding information on offsetting tax cuts: The cost estimates included in advisory vote ballot titles  do not take into account any tax cuts that were enacted in the same legislation (or the same year) that partially or fully offset the cost of the tax increase. The result is that the cost estimates are highly biased and give the impression that policymakers only enacted tax increases in a given year. 
  • Deceptively calls technical corrections tax increases: Public advisory votes characterize any action that increases state revenues as a “tax increase.” That term applies even when policymakers enact a technical fix that simply prevents the state from losing revenue due to a lawsuit or other circumstance. For example, the ballot title for this year’s advisory vote #7 misleadingly reads, “The legislature extended, without a vote of the people, estate tax on certain property transfers and increased rates for estates over $4,000,000, costing approximately $478,000,000 in the first ten years, for government spending.” What it doesn’t say is that, prior to 2013, the estate tax, which was upheld by voters in 2006, already applied to these kinds of property transfers. The only thing that policymakers did was close a legal loophole that would have allowed certain, very wealthy estates, to avoid paying any estate taxes.

The bottom line is that the public advisory vote law distorts the facts in an effort to mislead voters into rejecting investments in schools and safe, healthy communities in favor of lower taxes for the richest Washingtonians and large, profitable corporations.

Stay tuned to schmudget. In the coming days we’ll take a closer look at the five advisory votes included on the November ballot.

About Andy Nicholas, Senior Fellow

Andy specializes in state budget and tax policy. Since joining the Budget & Policy Center in 2009, he has served on a Legislative Task Force on Tax Preference Reform and has conducted numerous analyses of Washington state’s tax code.

Read more about Andy