Camden: Answers to questions about advisory votes on ballots

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Jim Camden is a columnist with the Spokesman-Review in Spokane. Email: jimc@spokesman.com.

One of the safest bets in Washington politics is that after the ballots are delivered to mailboxes around the state, confused readers will call with some variation of this question: What’s with those advisory votes at the top of my ballot?

With three at the top of this year’s ballot, because nobody could scrounge up the signatures for an initiative, the confusion may be a bit more than normal on Advisory Vote Nos. 16, 17 and 18. Here are some answers to common questions, or as they might say on the internet, the 411 with some FAQs:

What happened to Nos. 1 through 15? Those were on previous ballots. Just as the state never reuses numbers for initiatives, even those that fail to make the ballot, it doesn’t reuse numbers for advisory votes.

What are advisory votes, anyway? Ten years ago, voters approved an initiative that included a provision calling for tax increases to be approved by a two-thirds majority and be put on the ballot in the next general election to ask whether they should be “repealed” or “maintained.” The two-thirds majority provision was struck down by the courts, but the advisory vote rule remains on the books.

In putting together the general fund budget this year, lawmakers approved several tax increases, ranging from $540,000 to $13 billion; this is your chance to express an opinion on them.

What’s No. 16 about? The Legislature made some changes to the taxes on fish caught and sold by commercial fishermen. It is projected to raise about $550,000 over the next 10 years. Some of it will go into the state Wildlife Account, some into the General Fund.

What about No. 17? This is a package of tax changes the Legislature approved to help pay for increased spending on public schools. It includes a sales tax on bottled water, a way to collect sales tax on items bought over the internet from out-of-state sellers, a way to collect the business and occupation tax on some out-of-state businesses with sales in Washington, and a requirement that some sales tax money that used to go to cities and counties go to the state. It is projected to raise $546 million over the next 10 years.

Just one vote for several different tax changes? Yes, because they’re all contained in a single bill.

And No. 18? That’s the bill attempting to satisfy a state Supreme Court order to provide adequate support for public schools. As part of that plan, the Legislature made a major shift in the property tax system, increasing what the state will collect and reducing what local school districts can collect. As a result, state property taxes will go up across Washington, and supporters say local property taxes for many but not all school districts will go down. Projections say that will raise about $13 billion for the state over 10 years.

Has the state Supreme Court signed off on the revisions for public schools? Not yet. Attorneys for the state argued last week they should; the attorney for the families who challenged the current system argued they shouldn’t. The justices had tough questions for both sides.

Why isn’t there more information about these ballot measures in the state Voters Pamphlet? The way the law reads, the state can only provide a 10-year projection of costs, a copy of the legislation and how each lawmaker voted. Unlike initiatives or referenda, it doesn’t allow arguments for or against.

Whose bright idea was that? Initiative 960 was one of many brought to you by Tim Eyman, Mike Fagan and Jack Fagan.

What happens if a majority of voters say any or all of these measures should be repealed? Probably nothing. Of the previous 15 advisory votes, more than half had a majority calling for repeal. The Legislature isn’t required to reconsider them, and they didn’t. But the revisions to the public school system and the way the state will pay for them are likely to come up next year. Lawmakers who didn’t like some elements of the taxes in 17 or 18 could point to the results in an effort to get rid of them.