Advisory votes on tax increases under fire

State senators claim they confuse voters, use biased language

OLYMPIA — Advisory votes that give voters a chance to let lawmakers know their opinions on legislation to increase taxes might be removed from future ballots.

Instead, senators are considering replacing advisory votes with a public opinion task force.

The proposal is not about silencing voters, but rather finding different ways to collect “genuine” feedback from voters, said the sponsor of Senate Bill 6610, Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue.

Advisory votes, like the 12 that appeared on the November 2019 ballot, have been informing voters of tax-increasing legislation since 2008 after voters approved Initiative 960, spearheaded by anti-tax activist Tim Eyman.

Advisory votes allow voters to indicate whether they feel tax increases passed by the Legislature should be repealed or maintained. The advisory votes are non-binding.

Eyman defended the practice of advisory votes asserting that voters had approved and re-affirmed their use in multiple elections, including a vote in 2012 that Eyman claimed was the most voted-for initiative in state history.

Kuderer claimed last year’s ballot included a dozen confusing advisory votes that used complicated language and lacked context. Kuderer said the advisory votes as they appear on the ballot are required to be written in a way that instills distrust and cynicism towards legislators.

She argued that language on the ballots such as “for government spending,” without details of how the revenue will be allocated or what they intend to fund are designed to get voters to vote no.

Anti-tax activist Eyman argued that getting rid of advisory votes would be “insulting,” to voters. Eyman claimed the bill is an attempt to hide tax increases and their costs from constituents.

“This is an arrogant, elitist bill,” Eyman said. “This bill sends a very clear message to voters: ‘We don’t care what you think. We have no interest in your opinion.’ ”

Eyman said the argument for the bill seems to be that advisory votes are not needed as legislators have and will continue to raise taxes despite voter opposition made evident by advisory vote results.

Hanna Floss, one of Kuderer’s constituents from Bellevue, testified in support of the bill Wednesday before the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee. Floss said advisory votes use language that shows bias against taxes and legislators, and she also believes that the advisory votes take up valuable space on ballots.

Floss also claimed the advisory votes could falsely give voters the impression that the vote will decide whether the tax is enacted.

Jay Jennings, legislative director for the secretary of state, testified in opposition to the bill. Jennings said voters approved the creation of advisory votes in 2008 by passing Initiative 960. Jennings said the initiative was approved with the intent to protect taxpayers by providing greater legislative transparency and accountability through voter participation.

Jennings said Secretary of State Kim Wyman cannot recommend that the functions and intent of advisory votes could be adequately replaced by a task force.

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This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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