OLYMPIA, Aug. 13.—Since when does an anti-tax ballot measure cost the state $33 million a year? Especially since last time the voters passed it, its estimated cost wasn’t a dime?
This year, apparently, it does. The Office of Financial Management’s official estimate for the cost of Initiative 1185, the two-thirds-for-taxes measure that Washington voters keep passing every few years, is that it will cost the state tens of millions annually over the next five years – as much as $33 million in 2017, maybe even more. That’s despite the fact that the last time voters passed the measure, the near-identical Initiative 1053 in 2010, state officials estimated the cost would be zero. The last time, they said it was simply a change to a legislative procedure, and you couldn’t put a price tag on that.
The multi-million cost figure is a statement that will be published in the state voters’ pamphlet for every voter to see, and it has some people hopping mad. Says initiative sponsor Tim Eyman, “they’re trying to scare people into thinking that if you vote for this, it’s not going to work.” Eyman is threatening a suit if OFM doesn’t change the language. Wednesday is the deadline for a court filing.
It is a potentially big issue for the state’s business community, which put up most of the $1.3 million to get the issue on the ballot this year. The measure, which is all but identical to similar measures Washington voters have passed four times since 1993, requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate in order to pass a tax increase. That makes it substantially more difficult for the Democratic majorities in the statehouse to pass tax legislation, because it forces them to negotiate with minority Republicans. It keeps coming back to the ballot because lawmakers keep repealing or suspending it when it becomes possible to do so with a majority vote, two years after passage. The Association of Washington PAC worked closely with Eyman this year, as it did in 2010, paying signature gatherers directly; and some of the biggest business interests in the state contributed both to AWB and Eyman. Big supporters included oil, the beer biz, agriculture, restaurants, realtors — all of which might be targeted for taxes if no restriction applies.
The point of dispute has to do with a little-noticed provision of the measure, which requires legislative approval for fee increases including tolls. Under a new provision of the 2010 measure, they couldn’t be delegated to boards, commissions and agencies anymore – or at least the Legislature had to provide them the authority to raise the money all over again. After the measure passed, the attorney general’s office opined that 1053 was a substantive change in the law that required a “reset.” And so was launched a frenzy of bill-passings the next session that basically reinstated everything – 113 fees in all.
I-1185 restates the law. So OFM concludes the same reset has to happen all over again. It says all tolls, all fees that have been authorized by the Legislature over the last two years, but which haven’t been enacted by the various agencies involved, have to be re-enacted into law. There are 11 such measures. Planned tolls alone could be as high as $33 million in 2017, assuming the downtown Seattle tunnel is open by then, and they could be higher if the Columbia River Crossing is completed. Hence the big number. It also says the state parks system can’t raise fees for the Discover Pass, the Department of Health can’t launch new licensing programs, and so on. But is a simple reiteration of a law that is already on the books really a substantive change?
OFM maintains it is merely trying to follow the rules laid down for it by the attorney general’s office. Eyman thinks there’s something darker going on. “I think most voters are smart enough to know that when the government is trying to describe a ballot measure they don’t want to pass, they probably aren’t giving it an accurate analysis.” But just in case, he has put OFM on notice that if the wording doesn’t change, he will be going to court on Wednesday.