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News / Politics / Election

GOP initiative backers lose fight to keep budget impacts off WA ballot

By Claire Withycombe, The Seattle Times
Published: June 10, 2024, 7:37am

OLYMPIA — A Thurston County Superior Court judge on Friday blocked an attempt by GOP backers of a slate of voter initiatives to keep the budget implications of their proposals off the ballot.

Voters will decide in November whether to keep or repeal the state’s capital gains tax, its carbon market and whether Washingtonians should be able to opt out of the state’s public long-term care insurance program. Each of the initiatives was filed by the chair of the state’s Republican Party, Jim Walsh, and seek to undo signature policies passed in recent years by the majority Democrat state legislature.

State analysts have said the initiatives, if passed, could reduce funding for education and environmental projects. The initiative that could allow people to opt out of the state’s first-in-the-nation long-term care insurance program could potentially dismantle it.

The key issue Friday was whether a brief statement about the budget impacts corresponding to each of those measures should appear on ballots. Walsh, a state representative from Aberdeen, and Deanna Martinez, the chair of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, contended state law does not require the statements on any of the initiatives and that the financial disclosures were being “weaponized.”

Lawyers for the state pushed back, saying the legal challenge was an attempt to keep information from voters.

Legislators passed the law at the center of the case in 2022, requiring the state’s attorney general to spell out how state funding and services could be affected by initiatives that repeal, impose or change any tax or fee and cause a net change to state revenue. The upcoming general election is the first time the disclosure law has become a factor because no initiatives qualified for the ballot in 2022 or 2023.

Walsh and Martinez asked a judge to bar Attorney General Bob Ferguson from preparing, and Secretary of State Steve Hobbs from certifying, the budget statements and to compel Hobbs to instruct county elections officials to print ballots without them. They also asked to compel the state’s Office of Financial Management to amend the fiscal impact statement it prepared on the initiative concerning the capital gains tax during the legislative session.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Allyson Zipp declined.

Opponents of the initiatives celebrated the ruling Friday, calling it a “win” for Washington voters.

“The Washington Constitution provides voters with the right to participate in the lawmaking process through the initiative and referendum processes,” said Misha Werschkul, executive director of the Washington Budget and Policy Center. “Voters have a right to know these initiatives cost too much and will have massive impacts on our state’s ability to provide critical services to all Washingtonians.”

In an interview, Walsh said Zipp’s ruling was “disappointing” but not surprising. They had not decided whether to appeal.

“Our concern, of course, is that the 10 to 15 words will not be a factual statement of a dollar amount but will be some overheated, rhetorical, grandiose, Chicken Little fearmongering of what the passage of the good reform will do,” Walsh said.

Supporters of the initiatives often refer to the trio of policies they’re hoping to repeal or change on the campaign trail as taxes, pushing the slogan “vote yes, pay less.” Walsh said getting the state to say the policies amounted to taxes “might have been part of our concern and our purpose,” when asked Friday.

“I’m glad they now admit we were right all along and this is a tax,” he said. “It took them going to court.”

In response, Aaron Ostrom, executive director of the progressive group Fuse Washington, said lawsuit backers were trying to “hide” information from voters.

Opponents of the initiatives commissioned polling they say shows when voters have more information about what the initiatives could mean for the state budget, they tend to be less supportive of them.

“What their initiatives do is cut taxes for powerful corporations and wealthy people and shift the bill to middle- and low-income families,” Ostrom said. “So whether it’s a tax or not is not the issue, the issue here is who’s paying it.”

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