Washington Voters Reject Repeal of Gas Tax Increase

Published January 1, 2006

Washington voters on November 8 rejected Initiative 912, which would have repealed a 9.5 cents per gallon increase in the gasoline tax passed by state lawmakers in April 2005. The initiative lost by 161,965 votes, with 973,812 voting against the gas tax repeal and 811,847 voting for it.

The legislature’s passage of the gas tax hike had angered many Washington citizens. Opponents of the tax hike gathered nearly 420,000 signatures in 30 days to put the repeal initiative on the ballot.

In 2002 the legislature had placed a 9 cents per gallon gas tax increase on the ballot, and that referendum was strongly rejected.

Katrina Apparently Changed Attitudes

According to Stuart Elway of Elway Research, a Seattle-based polling firm, 55 percent of state residents supported I-912 in June and 52 percent in July, but the firm’s September 22-25 survey of 400 registered voters showed only 41 percent of citizens supporting I-912. The polls had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

“I think Katrina was truly significant,” said Elway, suggesting some residents changed their minds because of the extensive damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast when it roared ashore August 29. He said the damage from Katrina made them sympathetic to arguments in favor of higher spending on infrastructure such as roads and bridges. “Voters also took a harder look at the initiative in September, which was at the same time as our primary [elections].”

Elway said Washington state residents have consistently indicated a strong desire for improved transportation.

“It’s always one or two–rotating with education–as the top issue facing the state,” Elway said. “The people who voted ‘yes’ essentially said, ‘We’ve got to do this.'”

Elway also said 40 percent of those who supported the gas tax repeal in the summer polls did so because they believed gasoline prices were too high. He speculated that declining prices before the November election and the time to adjust to the overall higher prices likely softened support for I-912.

Tax Hikers Outspent Repealers

Elway also said opponents of the repeal measure outspent supporters of I-912 and had a vigorous media campaign. Total expenditures on ballot initiatives were not available at press time. The Web site of the state’s Public Disclosure Commission identified six political committees associated with I-912, five of which were against the repeal measure.

“We didn’t let the other side spread lies,” said Andrew Villeneuve, executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, an organization affiliated with Washington Defense, one of the organizations registered with the Public Disclosure Commission as opposing I-912. “We went to the voters and described local projects, and voters responded by showing they wanted sustainable communities. We believe that our position was vindicated and that voters saw it was an imperative to invest in infrastructure and a good transit network.”

Only one organization, No New Gas Tax, was identified as working for the repeal. On its Web site, NoNewGasTax.com, the group argued the law authorizing the gas tax did not specify which projects would be pursued, that the law did not require appropriate accountability for how the money will be spent, and that gas taxes were already high enough.

Business Backed Tax Hike

A large coalition, including prominent Washington-based businesses such as Microsoft and Boeing, assembled to defeat I-912. Many other large corporations, such as Weyerhauser and Puget Sound Energy, also worked against I-912, as did several regional chambers of commerce and organizations ranging from the Washington Highway Users Association to the Sierra Club. Many trade associations related to housing and construction also opposed the measure.

In addition, most labor unions, including the state Teamsters organization and Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO, opposed the repeal measure.

Big Cities Favored Tax

The vote was not evenly distributed across the state. Twelve counties voted against I-912. Most of those were in the Puget Sound area, which includes two of Washington’s most populous counties: King and Snohomish. Twenty-seven counties voted to repeal the increased gas tax–those were generally the rural, less-populated counties.

King County, which includes Seattle, itself provided the margin of victory for the entire state. In that county, opponents of the repeal outnumbered supporters by 176,000 votes.

The county results closely resemble the 2004 presidential election results. Kerry won the state by a 53-46 percent margin but won only 12 of Washington’s 39 counties. Seven of the 12 Kerry counties voted against repeal of the gas tax hike. Of the 27 counties that Bush won in 2004, 22 voted for the repeal.

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.