OLYMPIA — At least two certainties exist in the lives of many Washingtonians: taxes, and the specter of a giant earthquake-tsunami combo that will someday manifest, bringing widespread destruction.
Well, voters, you’re in luck: The Nov. 5 election ballot gives you opportunities to weigh in on each of these portentous subjects.
Ballots will be mailed to voters this week, and tucked in among local elections and statewide ballot measures on car-tab fees and affirmative action are a dozen state advisory votes and one proposed constitutional amendment.
So as to momentarily forestall further thoughts of mass devastation, let’s begin with the tax votes.
Advisory votes are nonbinding — meaning your vote on them doesn’t change anything. This year’s ballot features a dozen, all stemming from revenue bills approved by lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee.
In the voters’ pamphlet mailed out by the Secretary of State’s Office, information on each advisory vote includes a description of the tax, a projection of how much revenue it is to bring in over 10 years and a list of how each legislator voted on the bill.
This year’s advisory votes correspond to the revenue bills passed this spring by Democratic-controlled House and Senate. Some of those bills help fund the new, two-year $52.4 billion state operating budget.
Among those, lawmakers boosted revenue by hiking the business-and-occupation tax on large banks and restricting some existing tax breaks. Legislators also raised new money by changing the state’s existing real estate excise tax — which is paid by home-sellers — from a flat rate to a graduated rate.
Other advisory votes ask voters to weigh in on revenue bills approved for new programs, such as the payroll tax to fund benefits for long-term care to help people as they age. Another one hiked the business-and-occupation tax for some businesses to help pay college tuition for low-to median-income students.
For anyone new to Washington wondering why they’re voting on something that won’t make a difference: Advisory votes have a political history.
They came into being with a 2007 ballot measure from anti-tax activist and prolific initiative-filer Tim Eyman. (Elsewhere on this year’s ballot, voters will decide on Eyman’s latest proposed car-tab measure, Initiative 976.)
In an interview, Eyman said advisory votes are a way to inform voters of what lawmakers did this year.
“You have a chance to find out how expensive was your Legislature this year,” Eyman said, adding later: “Why not tell people how they (lawmakers) voted on the most impactful decision that they made, which is taking more of your money?”
Many Democratic lawmakers have voiced frustration over advisory votes. Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said she often hears from constituents who are confused by them.
Kuderer called advisory votes misleading, because they explain the taxes without saying who necessarily is affected. There’s also no mention of what the money is intended to go toward.
“They’re designed to shape public opinion, and they’re certainly not designed to measure it,” said Kuderer, who sponsored legislation this year to eliminate them.
That proposal, Senate Bill 5224 passed the Senate, and even drew a few Republican votes. House lawmakers, however, didn’t give it a floor vote.
Meanwhile, voters also will weigh in on a proposed constitutional amendment intended to make sure state and local governments still function after a major disaster such as a megaquake. And this vote will count.
The Legislature this year passed Senate Joint Resolution 8200. As a proposed amendment to the state constitution, voters make the final decision.
Right now, the Washington constitution allows for contingency plans in the event of an enemy attack on the United States. That is defined in state law as an act of warfare — which doesn’t cover natural or other human-caused disasters.
SJR 8200, the proposed amendment, would expand the authority of continuity-of-government plans to include those events.
Continuity of government laws spell out temporary succession plans for the duties and powers of state and local elected offices.
They can also set requirements for emergency sessions of the Legislature or local governments, such as eliminating quorums so surviving legislators can pass measures. And the plans could give state lawmakers permission to convene somewhere other than the Capitol, if needed because of a mass disaster.
When — not if — it comes, the megaquake, courtesy of the Cascadia Subduction Zone, is expected to be one of the worst disasters ever seen in the U.S.
The state and Seattle officials haven’t yet done everything needed to prepare for it and minimize casualties.
The proposed amendment was sponsored in the Legislature by Sen. Dean Takko, a Democrat from Longview whose district includes the Southwest Washington coastline. That area is susceptible not just to a megaquake, but to a resulting tsunami.
“Without a doubt there’s going to be a lot of destruction of local government,” Takko said. “And if it’s as bad as some people say, maybe state government, too.”
If voters approve the constitutional amendment, it will allow legislation passed this year, Senate Bill 5012, to take effect. That legislation — also sponsored by Takko — allows for contingency planning to begin.
The proposed amendment passed with wide majorities in the Legislature, but a handful of lawmakers opposed it.
Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said he worries the proposed amendment is too vaguely worded for such a strong expansion of legislative authority.
Orcutt, who helped write the voters’ pamphlet statement opposing the amendment, said vague wording could allow those powers to be applied, for instance, to a smaller calamity, like a wildfire.
“I can’t tell you how I would write it differently,” Orcutt said. “But I think the Legislature can and should identify exactly what they need and not try to take such a broad amount of authority.”