Wash. Voters Want Discipline, Not Tax Increases

Published January 1, 2008

Based on the results of the November election, 2007 may go down in history as a year of mini-tax revolt in Washington State.

Not only were a majority of the local tax increases on the ballot rejected, voters also:


  • turned down a huge transportation tax increase;



  • rejected an effort to make it easier to raise school levies;



  • adopted a tax and fee limitation measure; and



  • enacted a constitutionally restricted budget savings account.


Transportation Taxes Rejected

Voters in Snohomish, Pierce, and King Counties, the state’s three largest counties, were asked to approve Proposition 1, a regional transportation tax package for light rail and road construction.

Supporters claimed the tax was the only option left to address the state’s traffic congestion problems. Yet 56 percent of the voters rejected the proposal, which would have hiked vehicle registration fees (called car tabs) and sales taxes.

The overwhelming rejection left supporters of the tax puzzled.

The Seattle Times quoted House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) as saying, “We’ll have to look when we get to the end. Is it the money or the program list? I have no good feeling for why people are saying no.”

Congestion Not Reduced

Voters may have rejected the measure because it would have failed to reduce traffic congestion despite billions of dollars in tax increases.

“Prop. 1 failed because it did not provide the one solution people want most–traffic relief,” said Michael Ennis, director of the Transportation Center for the Washington Policy Center. “Voters could either spend $47 billion and double congestion, or save $47 billion and still double congestion. If the failure of Prop. 1 tells us anything, it’s that any future proposal must show a stronger link in its ability to reduce traffic.”

Photo Finish on Supermajority Rule

A measure to gut the state’s constitutional requirement that tax increases for school levies receive 60 percent approval was too close to call at press time, though it had edged ahead by a few thousand votes.

HJR 4204 initially appeared to have been rejected by 51 percent of voters, but late ballot counts indicate the measure could be headed to a recount, possibly delaying the outcome for weeks.

For years educators pressured legislators to pass a constitutional amendment to allow school levies to pass with a simple majority vote. Lawmakers put the measure before voters this year.

Not only would HJR 4024 eliminate the 60 percent approval requirement for school levies, but it also would jettison the requirement that there be at least 40 percent of the turnout from the previous general election for school levy increases to be valid.

Rainy Day Fund Wins

The most popular statewide ballot measure was a constitutional amendment (SJR 8206) creating a mandatory and restricted budget savings account. SJR 8206 was adopted with 68 percent of the vote.

“I’m very pleased the voters of Washington have said yes to creating a Rainy Day Fund with the constitutional protection needed to fulfill its purpose,” said state Sen. Joseph Zarelli (R-Ridgefield) in a statement. Zarelli has championed the idea for years.

“If you look at how state overspending–up 33 percent in just the past four years–has put government on the road to a deficit, how our state economy is cooling, and how soaring property taxes are cutting into household incomes all around Washington, it’s not a surprise that people like the idea of putting money aside while we can,” Zarelli’s statement added.

Transparency Prevails

Washington voters also supported a measure to make it more difficult for lawmakers to circumvent the state tax and spending limit, I-601, passed by voters in 1993.

I-960, advertised as the “Taxpayer Protection Act,” reaffirmed an oft-ignored law requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislature to raise taxes. The measure also requires the legislature to approve all state fee increases and notify the public via email any time a tax or fee increase is proposed. It also mandates that if the legislature raises taxes without first referring them for voter approval, the voters will have the opportunity to participate in a non-binding advisory vote on the increase.

Although opponents claimed adoption of I-960 would shut down state government, 52 percent of voters supported the measure.

“Voters spoke for responsible government by soundly approving Initiative 960,” Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt (R-Walla Walla) told The Olympian newspaper. “Over the years, the legislature has eroded Initiative 601 to the point where it can raise taxes without having any real restraints in place. Now that hurdle will be much higher, as it should be.”

Not willing to concede defeat, opponents threatened court action. Christian Sinderman, spokesperson for the No on I-960 campaign, said a constitutional challenge is likely.

‘Clean Sweep’ for Taxpayers

Taxpayer advocates were encouraged by the election.

“This election appears to be a clean sweep for fiscal discipline and protecting the taxpayers,” said Dann Mead-Smith, president of the Washington Policy Center. “Hopefully our elected officials are paying attention and will respect the will of the people.”

Jason Mercier ([email protected]) is director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center in Seattle, Washington.