Senate passes bill to eliminate public advisory votes on tax increases, Republicans cry foul

Democrats tired of regular public rebukes, says Sen. Jeff Wilson – people vote no on taxes 73 percent of the time

OLYMPIA – Washington voters would no longer have the final word on tax increases approved by their lawmakers under a bill that cleared the state Senate Wednesday.

Senate Bill 5082 eliminates Washington state’s unique advisory-vote process, which requires a non-binding election when lawmakers raise taxes without a vote of the people. During the decade these advisory votes have been appearing on the Washington state ballot, voters have rebuked lawmakers 73 percent of the time.

Final vote on the bill was 30-18, largely along party lines. Democrats argued advisory votes are confusing, while Republicans observed the bill would eliminate the public’s ability to easily express approval or disapproval of taxes. The bill moves on to the House for further consideration.

“This is government arrogance at its worst,” said Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, ranking Republican on the Senate State Government and Elections Committee. “Our colleagues are saying voters are stupid. This does them great disrespect. The people know the vast majority of tax increases passed by the Legislature over the last 10 years are entirely unnecessary. Advocates of higher taxes and spending just aren’t interested in what the people think.

“By eliminating advisory votes, Democrats are sticking their fingers in their ears and telling the people of Washington, ‘We can’t hear you.’”

The advisory votes were required by voter-approved Initiative 960 in 2007, which required a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate for tax increases. The initiative also required advisory votes when taxes are not submitted for voter approval in a referendum. Though the state Supreme Court ultimately ruled the supermajority requirement unconstitutional, the requirement for advisory votes was allowed to stand.

Since 2012, 38 tax advisory votes have appeared on the Washington general election ballot. Voters have said no to taxes approved by the Legislature 28 times.

Wilson noted that voters have said yes to taxes 10 times, demonstrating that they are willing to take a thoughtful approach. Among the taxes passed by the Washington Legislature and approved by the people are taxes on vape juice, international investment firms and medical marijuana.

The advisory votes gave Washington voters their only opportunity to express their view on the state’s new income tax on capital gains, approved by a sharply divided Legislature in 2021. Washington voters already had voted against an income tax 10 times in a row. Democratic sponsors of the 2021 income tax bill chose not to submit the matter to a public vote, and included a provision that blocked the people from filing a referendum to overturn the tax.

An advisory vote could not be prevented, however – and it became the people’s only outlet for expression. In November 2021, Washington voters rejected an income tax for the 11th straight time, by an overwhelming 61-39 percent vote.

“A vote that didn’t count was better than no vote at all, because it demonstrated how out of step the Legislature was with the people of the state,” Wilson said. “I can understand why my colleagues might feel embarrassed. It was wrong of them to pass an income tax in the first place without going to the people, and it was doubly wrong of them to prevent the people from filing a referendum to overturn the tax. Sixty-one percent of the people said they disapproved. Now they’ve decided to solve the problem by preventing the people from voting. What they’re really saying is they can’t handle the truth.”

Washington is the only state that makes advisory votes a regular practice. However, according to the Ballotpedia website, 10 statewide advisory votes have appeared on the ballot elsewhere since 2010, and advisory votes have been employed by numerous local-government jurisdictions.