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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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In Our View: Advisory votes waste taxpayer money, time

The Columbian
Published:

This week’s election in Clark County was simple and straightforward. Unlike comprehensive November elections, voters were asked to decide no more than two issues on their ballots.

But even as the votes are being counted on a variety of tax and spending measures in the region, lawmakers can take steps to simplify and clarify future general elections. They can do away with convoluted, needlessly expensive advisory votes that complicate November elections in Washington.

Senate Bill 5082 and its companion, House Bill 1152, have been proposed to eliminate those advisory votes. SB 5082 has passed the Senate by a 30-18 vote (among local senators, Democrat Annette Cleveland voted in favor, while Republicans Lynda Wilson and Ann Rivers voted against).

The advisory votes are empty calories for the electorate; they are push polls masquerading as meaningful public queries. That’s because they are nonbinding, serving as nothing more than an opportunity for voters to impotently yell at the clouds.

In 2020, for example, Advisory Vote No. 32 read: “The legislature imposed, without a vote of the people, a retail sales tax on passthrough charges retail establishments collect for specified carryout bags, costing $32,000,000 in its first ten years, for government spending.” Without mentioning that the tax amounted to about 41 cents a year for each Washington resident, the vote then asked whether the tax should be repealed or maintained.

Unsurprisingly, 61 percent of Washington voters said it should be repealed, including 67 percent in Clark County; asking voters if a tax should be repealed is akin to asking whether they think it will rain this month.

Equally unsurprisingly, the vote did not lead legislators to rethink the tax; the advisory votes are mere suggestions, and like many well-meaning suggestions they are routinely ignored. In the past three years, nine advisory votes have been on the ballot, and voters have urged for repeal in each case – to no avail.

This is not to suggest that voters should not have a say in which tax measures are passed or that lawmakers know better than the public. The point is that the people do have a say – by electing representatives every two years and senators every four years. Those elected officials then go to Olympia to carry out the will of the people; that is how representative democracy works, and the advisory votes obfuscate the process.

Washington’s advisory votes are a remnant of Initiative 960, which was passed in 2007. The initiative’s primary purpose was to require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature for increases to taxes and fees. The tax portion of the initiative was partially repealed by the Legislature in 2010, and the measure was ruled unconstitutional in 2013. The tax limitation was thrown out; the advisory votes remained.

Their continued existence is a waste of taxpayer money. In 2021, advisory votes were the only statewide issue in front of voters, requiring a Voters’ Pamphlet that otherwise would be unnecessary. In other years, the votes take up space on ballots and in the Voters’ Pamphlet that adds to the expense.

Under SB 5082, the state would include information in the Voters’ Pamphlet about state budgets and where tax revenue actually goes, without the cynical language offered by the advisory votes and without asking voters to answer meaningless questions.

Advisory votes have represented a pointless exercise that squanders time and money for voters while sowing confusion about the efficacy of the vote. They should be eliminated.

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