Those tax advisory votes are worth your trouble

By Jim Walsh

There’s a narrow political storm going on in Olympia right now that flashes some light on the state’s broader tax-and-spend climate.

This fall, if you’re a registered voter, you’ll get a Voters’ Pamphlet in the mail a few weeks before you get your general-election ballot. The Voters’ Pamphlet is something that many voters used to ignore. But people around here tell me they pay more attention to the pamphlet than they used to, because it’s one of the few sources of information they trust to be unbiased. And to show all sides of ballot issues.

A large part of this fall’s Voters’ Pamphlet will be taken up with explanations of the 12 state tax increases recently pushed through the Legislature in secretive, late-night votes. Some politicians and bureaucrats at the Capitol — basically, the people who pushed the taxes — don’t like that. They’d prefer voters not to know.

That’s a terrible, cynical thing.

Quick background. In 2007, Washington voters approved Initiative 960 — which requires that non-binding “Advisory Votes” appear on the next general-election ballot any time the Washington Legislature increases a tax or creates a new tax. The purpose of the Advisory Votes is to inform the people of what the politicians and bureaucrats in Olympia have been doing. That’s especially important when tax hikes are pushed through in the middle of the night. Or as title-only “ghost” bills that don’t get proper public hearings and review. Sneaky, sleazy tricks that have become too common.

Initiative 960 is very specific about how the advisory votes must be explained in the Voters’ Pamphlet. The mechanics of each tax increase must be described in plain English (or as close to plain English as Olympia can manage). The cost to taxpayers must be estimated for both near and long terms. And how legislators voted on each tax hike must be shown. It’s a lot of information. Each explanation takes about two pages.

So, earlier this year, the majority party in Olympia forced 12 tax increases on the people of Washington. The estimated 10-year cost of the hikes will be about $27 billion. That’s more than usual in a single legislative session — and means that the upcoming Voters’ Pamphlet is going to be thick with advisory vote explanations. Twenty-four pages’ worth.

Here comes the storm.

The Governor’s Office of Financial Management (OFM) is the agency charged with producing the official pamphlet projections of how much the 12 tax hikes will cost Washington taxpayers. But OFM has been resisting — and trying to hide the effects of the tax hikes. The bureaucrats at OFM claim that the costs of at least some of the hikes are “indeterminate.” Even though private-sector analysts and groups from all points on the political spectrum have already produced reasonable projections.

Doing tax-hike projections is not OFM’s main job. Its main job is writing the governor’s proposed budgets every two years and supplemental budgets in between. So, OFM bureaucrats love planning ways to spend your tax dollars; they’re not so keen on having to project how much that spending is going to cost you.

For example, consider one of the 12 recent tax hikes that will be explained in the upcoming Voters’ Pamphlet. Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 1087 creates a government-administered nursing home “insurance” benefit funded by a payroll tax increase. (I voted No on HB 1087 because it’s not really insurance and, as structured, it’s effectively a regressive tax. People with lower incomes pay more on a percentage basis for the same benefit than people with higher incomes pay. Taxes should be flat — everyone pays the same percentage.) Several private-sector groups have estimated that this new entitlement program will cost Washington workers $1 billion in higher payroll taxes each year over the next 30 years.

But OFM bureaucrats insist the cost of the program is complicated and can’t be determined. I suspect that the bureaucrats are hesitant to speak clearly about HB 1087 because: 1) the billion-dollar-a-year cost is higher than they want to admit; and 2) any detailed analysis is going to show that it’s a regressive tax.

One of our state’s great ironies is that “progressive” politicians constantly promote regressive tax schemes. And then complain that state taxes are regressive.

Fiscal conservatives and taxpayer-advocacy groups have been pressuring OFM to cut the evasions and offer honest projections of the 12 recent tax hikes. And we’ve been having some good effect. The final projections are due to the Washington Secretary of State’s office by early September, in order to make publication deadlines for the Voters’ Pamphlet. Lately, there’s been word that OFM is revising some of its “indeterminate” projections to include real numbers. That’s a hopeful sign.

But, as I mentioned above, an even more troubling talking point has emerged from the storm over projections. Some advocates for higher taxes now argue that the entire advisory vote process should be abolished. They claim that explaining tax increases is too complicated for ordinary people to understand.

That’s condescending. It’s sneaky. And, most importantly, it’s wrong.

Jim Walsh is a Republican who lives in Aberdeen and represents the 19th Legislative District in the state’s House of Representatives.