Washington state voters will get a chance this November to repeal a gasoline tax increase lawmakers passed at the end of the spring legislative session.
Volunteers gathered more than 420,000 signatures in barely 30 days, almost twice as many as were needed to place Initiative 912 on the ballot.
“We’ve seen nothing like this in more than 30 years in this state,” said John Carlson, a radio talk show host on Seattle-based KVI who has criticized the tax hike on his program.
The 9.5 cents per gallon tax increase will be phased in over four years, starting with a 3 cents per gallon increase that took effect July 1. The increases come on top of the state’s existing 28 cents per gallon tax.
Voters Opposed Previous Increases
In 2002, the legislature placed a referendum on the ballot that would have increased the gas tax by 9 cents a gallon. Voters overwhelmingly defeated the referendum. The legislature responded in 2003 by raising gas taxes by 5 cents without a referendum.
Carlson said this year’s tax increase was passed in late April because the proponents “thought there would be no time for an initiative [to repeal the measure].”
According to Brett Bader, spokesman for Nonewgastax.com, which is sponsoring the repeal initiative, opposition to the tax increase quickly developed. During May an initiative was developed and the organization planned a signature drive.
Entirely by Volunteers
On June 7, once the legal hurdles were cleared, petitions were distributed to volunteers. About 225,000 signatures had to be submitted to the Secretary of State’s office by July 8 to get the measure on the ballot. Petitioners submitted 420,518.
Paid signature-gathering firms weren’t interested in the effort, according to Bader, thinking there would not be enough time. The signatures were collected entirely by volunteers.
Talk Show Hosts Are Sued
Carlson and fellow KVI talk show host Kirby Wilbur have spoken in favor of the repeal initiative on the air. That led to a lawsuit, filed by Thurston County prosecutor Randall Gaylord, contending the radio station was making campaign contributions because of the activities of its on-air personalities.
A Thurston County judge agreed, ruling the station must report Carlson and Wilbur’s comments as campaign contributions.
“If no one had responded to my commentary, then no one would have complained,” said Carlson. “Because [the people of Washington] did [respond], the other side is crying foul, which means that they are objecting to my free speech because it was effective.”
Labor, Business Back Tax
A coalition of labor unions and business organizations has emerged to oppose the tax repeal initiative. The coalition includes several chambers of commerce, a state realtors’ organization, and the Sierra Club. The coalition first tried to discourage Washington residents from signing the I-912 petition. Failing in that effort, the coalition is now organizing a campaign to defeat the initiative.
On KeepWashingtonRolling.com, several fliers prepared for distribution by activists argue the gas tax will cost most voters less than $1 per week. They also say the additional tax revenue will be an “investment” in the future of Washington.
Andrew Villeneuve, of Washington Defense, a program sponsored by the liberal Northwest Progressive Institute, said the tax increase “should more properly be called an investment.” Villeneuve said he believes additional funds are needed to make the existing state transportation infrastructure safer.
Would Be Nation’s Highest
Also at issue is the burden on taxpayers. Bader said once the entire tax increase is in effect, Washington will have the highest gas tax rate in the nation.
Villeneuve rejects that claim, saying, “To say that we are overtaxed is really quite ridiculous.”
Voters in November will have the final say.
Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches public policy at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.
For more information …
More information on Initiative 912 is available online at http://www.nonewgastax.com.