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Washington State Advisory Votes Explained

For the first time since the 1980s Washington voters will not be deciding a statewide initiative during the November general election. That  means more attention has been put onto three statewide measures that might ordinarily get little or no attention.

This year, the Washington legislature approved increases, or adjustments, in several state taxes. Three measures on the statewide ballot in November are asking whether you approve of those changes. They are Advisory Votes 16, 17 and 18.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman says the advisory votes were authorized in 2007 when voters approved Initiative 960.

Kim Wyman: “It doesn’t have any kind of binding piece to it. For the legislature, it’s giving that feedback to the legislature of whether they approve or disapprove of it.”

Advisory Vote 18 is the largest of the measures, money wise. It asks voters whether they approve of a rise in state property taxes to help fund a major increase in spending for public schools. It’s expected to raise about $13 billion during the next 10 years.

Supporters of the legislation, from both parties and including the governor, hope this will satisfy the state supreme court. It ruled in 2012, in what has become known as the McCleary decision, that the state has failed to adequately fund basic education.

The advisory vote was approved by roughly two-to-one margins in both the state House and Senate on the last day of the fiscal year.

According to a district-by-district chart created by the state, the average increase in 2018 for owners of single-family homes in Spokane-area school districts will be somewhere in the $100-to-200/a year range. The increases are expected to be smaller in many rural districts in eastern Washington. And then in 2019, patrons in many districts will see their state property taxes go down.

Sen. Andy Billig (D-Spokane) was part of the group that negotiated the new education budget. He voted for the property tax increase but had mixed feelings about it.

“I think the policy, I think the spending decisions, I think they’re really good," Billig said. "The funding source, I’m really disappointed about. I’m disappointed in it generally. I’m disappointed that it was in this bill. The property tax, I think there were fairer, smarter ways to fund this.”

Advisory Vote 17 is also a big ticket item. It’s expected to raise about $565 million for the state during the next 10 years. It involves several changes in taxes. Among them, it includes an expansion of the state business and occupation tax so that more businesses pay it. It means consumers who buy things online or via mail order will soon pay sales tax, whereas now, in many cases, they don’t. It also changes state law so that you will soon pay sales tax on bottled water.

The bill that included all of these was presented to the Senate and House for a vote on the last day of the special session.  

Rep. Kristine Lytton (D-Anacortes) praised the provision that authorizes an Internet sales tax.

“I have a furniture store in Mt. Vernon and the owner has talked repeatedly over the years of how he has customers come in, they look at furniture, he spends a great deal of time with them. And they politely thank him and they say, ‘actually I’m going to buy this online because I don’t have to pay the sales tax.’ And that’s created a really unfair playing field,” Lytton said.

Rep. Ed Orcutt (R-Kalama) said he understands the fairness argument that Lytton makes, but he expects the Internet tax will be challenged in court, leaving the state budget vulnerable if a court rules the tax isn’t legal.

Orcutt also aimed at the bottled water tax. He remembered that the legislature voted to tax it several years ago, only to have voters repeal the tax in an initiative.

“I get concerned when the voters tell us, ‘No, do not tax this. We think it is bad policy for you to tax this.’ And then a few years later, we just come right back and tax it," Orcutt said. "I think the voters are going to be pretty upset with us for doing that.”

And finally, Advisory Vote 16. It’s much smaller and more targeted. It expands fees for some commercial fishermen. It’s expected to raise less than a million dollars during the next 10 years, with the money targeted for the state wildlife account.

By law, the state isn’t required to provide pro and con viewpoints for these measures in the statewide voters guide as it would for an initiative. But there is a bit of information as well as how each legislator voted on each bill covered by the advisory votes. You can also read more about the bills themselves on the legislature’s website.

Thanks to TVW for much of the sound in this story.