Advisory votes on Whatcom ballot give voters chance to weigh in on tax hikes

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 21, 2013 

2013 elections

MCT

A 2007 Tim Eyman initiative has lengthened the election ballot and created confusion among voters. But the five advisory votes on the state's Nov. 5 ballot are worth both the space and the time it takes voters to make sense of them, Eyman said in an interview.

Each of the measures, which appear on the ballot as advisory votes Nos. 3 through 7, asks voters if they want to maintain or repeal a tax increase approved by the Legislature this year. The people's vote carries no legal weight, but the opportunity to vote gives the public more information, Eyman said.

"We want the voters to know which taxes were increased, how much they're going to cost the taxpayers, how legislators voted on the bills, and for voters to have some voice in the process," he said.

All of the information mentioned by Eyman is available in the state Voter's Guide, which came in the mail to registered voters and is available on the Secretary of State's website (see box).

Some Whatcom County residents haven't known what to make of the advisory votes, which first appeared in November 2012, a county election official said.

"They didn't understand what they were being asked and what effect the vote actually had," said Diana Bradrick, the county's chief deputy auditor, referring to last year's advisory votes. Some voters wondered if they could force a tax hike to be overturned, she said.

By casting an advisory vote, the public is only recommending to lawmakers that they either maintain or repeal a tax. Last year, almost 57 percent of voters asked the Legislature to repeal a tax on banks. On the same ballot, 55 percent asked to repeal a tax on oil companies. In response, lawmakers this year didn't do either.

Even so, Eyman said, they got the message.

"What that shows is, my goodness, if voters are opposed to taxes on pretty unpopular corporations, that sends a clear message that they aren't happy with taxes on anybody," he said.

A large majority of both legislative chambers approved the five tax increases described in the advisory votes on this year's ballot. The Legislature was pressed to fill a budget gap of about $1 billion.

Almost all of the cost to taxpayers - about $875 million out of the $877 million total - is found in advisory votes 6 and 7. For each measure, a vote to "maintain" is a recommendation to the Legislature to keep in place a tax it instituted earlier this year. A vote to "repeal" asks lawmakers to rescind the tax.

Advisory Vote No. 3: The Legislature voted 91 to 6 in the House and 47 to 2 in the Senate to eliminate one tax exemption for people who lease public property. Removing the exemption is expected to bring in $2 million to state government over the next 10 years.

Advisory Vote No. 4: Commuter air carriers located on private property will pay an aircraft excise tax instead of the property tax. Commuter carriers are defined as those with planes having fewer than 60 seats for passenger, mail or property delivery. The net gain in government revenue is estimated at $500,000 over 10 years. The House voted 71 to 22 for the measure. The Senate vote was 41 to 8.

Advisory Vote No. 5: Health insurers were paying a 2 percent tax on premiums they received for medical care but not for dental care. They lost that exemption for pediatric dental care in a 47 to 1 vote of the Senate and a 97 to 0 vote of the House. The state had no estimate of the revenue to be generated.

Advisory Vote No. 6: Residential phone service will no longer be exempt from sales tax. The state will raise an estimated $397 million over 10 years. The final votes were 77 to 15 in the House and 36 to 11 in the Senate.

Advisory Vote No. 7: The Legislature broadened the estate tax so it can be levied after the death of a surviving spouse who benefited from an estate held in a certain kind of marital trust. The measure passed 53 to 33 in the House and 30 to 19 in the Senate. The Republican-controlled Senate agreed to increase as part of a trade with Democrats to get a Republican-sponsored toxics-cleanup bill passed. The rewritten estate tax should bring an additional $478 million in 10 years.

MORE CANDIDATE INFORMATION

To see responses to various issues from these and other candidates on the Nov. 5 ballot, go to our online voter guide.

This is one in a series of articles on races in the November general election. Other articles are at BellinghamHerald.com/elections.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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