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News / Politics / Election

WA ballot initiatives: Pro and con campaigns gear up to woo WA voters

Initiatives deal with capital gain tax, state's carbon market and letting people opt out of long-term care insurance

By Claire Withycombe, The Seattle Times
Published: April 21, 2024, 6:05am

OLYMPIA — How much should Washington tax the rich?

Should Washington limit carbon emissions by making them more costly?

And must working Washingtonians chip into a public, state-run insurance program to help cover nursing home care and other long-term care costs associated with aging?

This fall, voters will have a say in the answer to each question. While 2024 is a jampacked election year that includes a presidential race and the first vacant governor’s seat in over a decade, the three initiatives on the ballot are arguably the most compelling.

Here’s why: it may be voters’ best chance this year to directly influence the state’s public policy. And the results could tell us more about where Washington voters stand on signature policies the Democratic majorities in the Legislature have put into place in recent years, including the creation of the first-in-the-nation insurance program to pay for long-term care costs.

The three initiatives are:

  • I-2109, repealing the state’s capital gains tax, which is a tax on profits above $262,000 from the sale or exchange of assets like stocks and bonds.
  • I-2117, repealing the state’s carbon market.
  • I-2124, which would allow people to opt out of a payroll tax that funds the state’s long-term care insurance program, WA Cares.

It’s early yet, with more than half a year left before Washingtonians will make their choices. But polling results and campaign donations are already flying. Spending, all told, could rival the scale of spending in the governor’s race, where contenders are duking it out to replace longtime Gov. Jay Inslee.

The initiatives were filed by state Republican Party Chair Jim Walsh. (Late last month, Walsh filed three additional initiatives, which face a steep climb to get on the ballot.)

Redmond businessman Brian Heywood bankrolled the effort to get six total initiatives to the Legislature, to the tune of about $6 million. The Legislature ended up passing three, but didn’t act on the rest, which is why voters will see them on their November ballots. Heywood’s group, Let’s Go Washington, will continue to be the main vehicle for fundraising and spending on the campaign to put the initiatives into law.

Three opposition campaigns are mounting through the coalition Defend Washington, which includes public sector unions, conservation and progressive groups. The opposition campaigns have altogether raised about $5.6 million so far.

Messaging shapes up

Each side, while projecting confidence about their prospects, is now laying the groundwork to woo voters to vote “yes” or “no.” Expect a battle over the facts: Both supporters and detractors say a big part of their work is going to involve educating voters on the policies at stake.

Let’s Go Washington plans to hold town halls in communities around Washington starting later this month. Backers believe their core message — “Say yes, pay less” — will resonate with Washingtonians at a time when the state’s cost of living has ballooned.

The initiatives’ opponents say they will stress to voters that passing the measures would mean potentially billions of dollars cut from valued public services.

The “No” campaign will also be highlighting the origin of the initiatives — emphasizing that Walsh, also a state representative from Aberdeen, filed the initiatives, and Heywood’s cash infusion.

While Walsh and Heywood have already been in the public eye drumming up support for their quest since the signature-gathering stage and before the Legislature, the opposition campaign is styling them as the villains — and it plans to make their association with the GOP part of the narrative against the initiatives.

Aaron Ostrom, executive director of the progressive group Fuse Washington, described Heywood and Walsh as “two schoolyard bullies picking a fight with everyone else in the school.”

“The opponents on all three of these initiatives have exceptionally broad support,” he said.

Hallie Balch, a spokesperson for Let’s Go Washington, said that Heywood is “self-made” and wanted to see the issues on the ballot.

“He’s built his own business, and his own success,” Balch said. “[He] saw an opportunity to help a large swath of voters in Washington state that had no chance of getting issues that affect them every day onto the ballot and took it upon himself to do it.”

Opponents have already begun campaigning by raising doubts about the strengths of the pro-initiative campaign, pointing to $4.5 million Heywood lent during the signature-gathering phase as an indication that the next stage of the pro-campaign was in the hole, and off to a rocky start. Balch said Heywood loaned the money but isn’t expecting to be paid back.

Likewise, backers of the initiative have cast doubt on their opponents’ ability to convince voters to reject the initiatives.

Walsh, the state Republican Party chair, says his side’s argument is simpler and more straightforward, and requires less money than the opposition effort.

“They’re going to probably have to outspend us significantly to try to defeat the three that have qualified,” he said. “And I think they’re going to fail in the end anyway.”

Campaign funding rolls in

Campaign finance reports show that among the opposition campaigns, the campaign to keep the carbon market has raised the most money so far — about $4.9 million. It’s drawn some high-dollar donors: the single largest donations are $1 million from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and $1 million from Chris Stolte, a co-founder of the data visualization software company Tableau.

The most recent year that voters approved an initiative was 2019, when Washingtonians passed Initiative 976, backed by conservative ballot activist Tim Eyman, which would have limited car tab fees to $30. But the Washington Supreme Court later found the measure was unconstitutional and struck it down.

When it comes to the measure concerning the carbon market, Washington voters may be feeling a sense of déjà vu. Ballot measures to get carbon taxes into state law failed in 2016 and 2018. This measure differs, in part because it would ask voters to keep or repeal an existing carbon-pricing system, which backers of the repeal effort call a hidden gas tax.

Asked about the prior failed measures, Mark Prentice, a spokesperson for the “No” on 2117 campaign, said the campaign was “focused on the cost of 2117 as currently proposed and what it would mean for communities and workers and families.”

He said the campaign, on top of high-dollar donations, has also drawn in smaller “grassroots” donors.

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Meanwhile, the campaign to keep the capital gains tax has raised about $450,000, with the largest donations coming from the Washington Federation of State Employees, SEIU’s Initiative Fund and the Washington Education Association. Washington has no income tax, and lawmakers passed the tax on capital gains in 2021. It then survived a series of court challenges, and now faces scrutiny from voters. The money from the tax is used to fund education, including early childhood programs and school construction.

And the campaign to keep the mandatory 0.58% payroll tax on most Washington workers to fund WA Cares, the long-term care insurance program, has raised about $269,000. So far most of the money has come from the SEIU 775 Ballot Fund.

Washington is the first state to institute such a program, which was passed in 2019. After a two-year delay, WA Cares got fully off the ground in 2023. This year, lawmakers passed a bill that allows people who move out of state to access their benefits.

Supporters of the program say making the tax optional would cause the system to collapse, because so many would opt out that the cost of providing the benefits couldn’t be sustained. Backers of the effort to make the tax opt-in say workers should have a choice in whether they contribute.

Opponents of the initiatives believe a 2022 state law requiring information about budget impacts of ballot measures that propose to create, change or repeal taxes or fees may work in their favor.

An October poll conducted by Change Research on behalf of SEIU 775 and Washington Conservation Action, each part of the Defend Washington coalition, suggests voters could be more likely to reject the initiatives when the ballot title includes a statement explaining what services would face cuts if they were voted into place.

“There may be some surface appeal to some of these measures, but voters really don’t want to see deep cuts to public services that they value,” said Sandeep Kaushik, a consultant for Defend Washington.

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