NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, September 10th, 2012

Let’s put Washington’s history of public votes on supermajority requirements in full context

Yes­ter­day evening, as I was scan­ning head­lines on Pacif­ic NW Por­tal, an arti­cle by Seat­tle Times reporter Andrew Gar­ber caught my eye. I clicked through to read it, and the fol­low­ing head­line and sum­ma­ry appeared on my screen:

Vot­ers may make it tougher for Leg­is­la­ture to raise tax­es — again
Tim Eyman has anoth­er ini­tia­tive on the Novem­ber bal­lot that would require a two-thirds vote in the state House and Sen­ate, or vot­er approval, to boost tax­es. It’s the fifth time such an ini­tia­tive has gone before vot­ers. It’s passed every time.

By Andrew Gar­ber
Seat­tle Times Olympia bureau

Scrolling down, I found the fol­low­ing para­graphs:

OLYMPIA — Ini­tia­tive guru Tim Eyman is ask­ing Wash­ing­ton vot­ers to do some­thing they’ve already done four times before: make it hard­er for state law­mak­ers to raise tax­es.

Ini­tia­tive 1185 on the Novem­ber bal­lot would reim­pose an exist­ing law requir­ing a two-thirds vote in the state House and Sen­ate, or vot­er approval, to boost tax­es.

The two-thirds restric­tion was first put in place by vot­ers in 1993 then reim­posed in 1998, 2007 and 2010, at least in part because of law­mak­ers’ pen­chant for sus­pend­ing the require­ment to raise more rev­enue.

After read­ing this, I decid­ed to send the Seat­tle Times a mes­sage request­ing an imme­di­ate cor­rec­tion. See, there have only been three ini­tia­tives to date that pro­posed requir­ing a two-thirds vote of the House and Sen­ate to raise rev­enue: I‑601 (from 1993), I‑960 (from 2007) and I‑1053 (from 2010).

I‑1185 is the fourth such ini­tia­tive — not the fifth.

For good mea­sure, I called the news­room and con­firmed that they had received my mes­sage, and that it would be for­ward­ed to Andrew Gar­ber as well as an edi­tor.

After I called the news­room, I noticed the sto­ry had been pro­mot­ed to the front page, again with an erro­neous sub­ti­tle:

Vot­ers may make it tougher for Leg­is­la­ture to raise tax­es — again
It’s the fifth time an ini­tia­tive that would require a two-thirds vote in the state Leg­is­la­ture, or vot­er approval, to boost tax­es has gone before vot­ers.

I hoped the Times would change the sto­ry before the paper went to press, in addi­tion to chang­ing it online. But they did­n’t.

Why did the Times mis­tak­en­ly inflate the num­ber of rel­e­vant ini­tia­tives? Because Tim Eyman and his friends at the Wash­ing­ton Pol­i­cy Cen­ter have long claimed that in addi­tion to the afore­men­tioned mea­sures, there was anoth­er occa­sion (in 1998) where Wash­ing­to­ni­ans vot­ed for a mea­sure to impose the two-thirds require­ment. Eyman and Com­pa­ny have done such a good job repeat­ing this that law­mak­ers and reporters have actu­al­ly start­ed to believe that I‑1185 is the fifth ini­tia­tive on this sub­ject, instead of the fourth. But that’s not the case.

As we can see from look­ing at the index of bal­lot mea­sures for 1998, there was no such mea­sure. What we do see are statewide ini­tia­tives per­tain­ing to the min­i­mum wage, med­ical mar­i­jua­na, abor­tion, and affir­ma­tive action… along with a statewide ref­er­en­dum on trans­porta­tion fund­ing.

It’s this ref­er­en­dum, R‑49, that Eyman and the Wash­ing­ton Pol­i­cy Cen­ter claim is the fourth vote (exclud­ing I‑1185). They jus­ti­fy their claim by cit­ing the fol­low­ing lan­guage, which is buried in the ref­er­en­dum’s text:

NEW SECTION. Sec. 14. A new sec­tion is added to chap­ter 43.135 RCW to read as fol­lows:
(1) Ini­tia­tive Mea­sure No. 601 (chap­ter 43.135 RCW, as amend­ed by chap­ter…, Laws of 1998 (this act) and the amenda­to­ry changes enact­ed by sec­tion 6, chap­ter 2, Laws of 1994) is here­by reen­act­ed and reaf­firmed. The leg­is­la­ture also adopts this act to con­tin­ue the gen­er­al fund rev­enue and expen­di­ture lim­i­ta­tions con­tained in this chap­ter 43.135 RCW after this one-time trans­fer of funds.

Here’s the thing, though: We have researched Ref­er­en­dum 49 fair­ly exten­sive­ly, and we’ve found that the dis­cus­sion and the debate over R‑49 con­cerned the mea­sure’s sub­ject: trans­porta­tion fund­ing. That makes sense, because R‑49 was a trans­porta­tion plan that the Repub­li­can Leg­is­la­ture put before the vot­ers for their con­sid­er­a­tion, not an ini­tia­tive to make rais­ing tax­es more dif­fi­cult, as the sum­ma­ry of Andrew Gar­ber’s sto­ry erro­neous­ly says.

Let’s con­sid­er the evi­dence.

First, let’s look at the bal­lot title for R‑49 (which is what vot­ers saw on their bal­lots). Notice it does­n’t say any­thing about reim­pos­ing the two-thirds vote require­ment.

Shall motor vehi­cle excise tax­es be reduced and state rev­enues real­lo­cat­ed; $1.9 bil­lion in bonds for state and local high­ways approved; and spend­ing lim­its mod­i­fied?

There’s also the explana­to­ry state­ment, basi­cal­ly a longer ver­sion of the bal­lot title.

The explana­to­ry state­ment does explic­it­ly refer to I‑601, but again, it does­n’t say any­thing about reim­pos­ing the two-thirds vote require­ment. It only refers to the pro­vi­sion estab­lish­ing a state expen­di­ture lim­it. In fact, the words “two-thirds” do not appear in the explana­to­ry state­ment at all.

What about the voter’s pam­phlet state­ment? Same deal. The argu­ments for and against R‑49 don’t men­tion the two-thirds vote require­ment, let alone I‑601. They are sole­ly con­cerned with the wis­dom (or lack there­of) of low­er­ing vehi­cle fees and com­mit­ting mon­ey to unspec­i­fied high­way con­struc­tion projects.

See for your­self. You’ll want to scroll down to page twelve of that doc­u­ment and start read­ing there. It’s a scanned copy of the 1998 pam­phlet, but it’s read­able.

What about news cov­er­age of R‑49? I searched the Seat­tle Times’ own archive for sto­ries about the mea­sure. I found sev­er­al. In none of the sto­ries did I find ref­er­ences to I‑601 or the super­ma­jor­i­ty vote require­ment in I‑601.

Here are the sto­ries I looked at:

I did find one op-ed urg­ing a “Reject” vote on R‑49, penned by con­ser­v­a­tive Wynn Can­non that men­tioned I‑601…  but only in pass­ing, and again, only in respect to the state expen­di­ture lim­it pro­vi­sion.

But here is the most impor­tant point of all: Had Ref­er­en­dum 49 failed, it would not have repealed I‑601. In oth­er words, the uncon­sti­tu­tion­al super­ma­jor­i­ty vote require­ment cre­at­ed by I‑601 in 1993 was not up for a vote, or a revote. It was going to remain in place regard­less of how the vot­ers vot­ed on R‑49.

It is there­fore entire­ly inap­pro­pri­ate to place R‑49 in the same cat­e­go­ry as I‑601, I‑960, and I‑1053. R‑49 was a ref­er­en­dum on trans­porta­tion fund­ing, with a line buried deep in its text that sym­bol­i­cal­ly “reaf­firmed” I‑601, put there by Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors. R‑49 was not a sequel to I‑601 like I‑960 and I‑1053.

This was the point I was try­ing to make to Gar­ber and the Seat­tle Times last night.

Gar­ber’s arti­cle also com­plete­ly fails to men­tion that Wash­ing­to­ni­ans have vot­ed against super­ma­jor­i­ty require­ments for rais­ing rev­enue… in 1993 and 2007, the same years that I‑601 and I‑960 were approved.

  • In 1993, vot­ers reject­ed Ini­tia­tive 602, which would have required three-fourths votes to raise rev­enue and rolled back rev­enue increas­es approved by the 1993 Leg­is­la­ture. I‑602 appeared on the bal­lot next to I‑601, and made the lat­ter mea­sure seem less extreme — though I‑601 was still an ille­git­i­mate abro­ga­tion of Arti­cle II, Sec­tion 22 of our state’s Con­sti­tu­tion.
  • In 2007, vot­ers approved HJR 4204, which appeared on the bal­lot next to I‑960. HJR 4204 was a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment that low­ered the thresh­old for pas­sage of school levies from six­ty per­cent (a super­ma­jor­i­ty) to a major­i­ty vote. Con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ments require a two-thirds vote of the Leg­is­la­ture and a major­i­ty vote of the peo­ple to pass.

It is worth empha­siz­ing that I‑601, I‑960, and HJR 4204 all passed with nar­row mar­gins. The mar­gin for I‑1053 like­ly would have been nar­row­er had resources been com­mit­ted — and had a cam­paign had been prop­er­ly orga­nized — pri­or to late Octo­ber, when it was too late to reach vot­ers on the issue.

The cam­paign against I‑602, which was bet­ter orga­nized than the cam­paign against I‑601, impres­sive­ly man­aged to per­suade 55% of Wash­ing­to­ni­ans vot­ing on the mea­sure to reject it. Only 44% vot­ed for it.

What does this mean? It means that con­trary to what Tim Eyman, the Wash­ing­ton Pol­i­cy Cen­ter, and the Seat­tle Times have stat­ed or implied, vot­ers have not always been sup­port­ive of schemes to make it more dif­fi­cult to raise rev­enue.

Of course, pro­po­nents of I‑1185 don’t like to talk about the full elec­toral his­to­ry because it under­mines the nar­ra­tive they’re try­ing to sell.

Let’s look at the spe­cif­ic num­bers for each of the mea­sures that was on the bal­lot pri­or to I‑1053 in 2010 (which is an out­lier).

I‑601 – 1993
Yes: 51.21% (774,342 votes)
No: 48.79% (737,735 votes)
I‑960 – 2007
Yes: 51.24% (816,792 votes)
No: 48.76% (777,125 votes)
Dif­fer­ence: 36,607 votesDif­fer­ence: 39,667 votes
I‑602 – 1993
Yes: 44.61% (673,378 votes)
No: 55.39% (836,047 votes)
HJR 4204 – 2007
Approved: 50.61% (811,507 votes)
Reject­ed: 49.39% (792,010 votes)
Dif­fer­ence: 162,669 votesDif­fer­ence: 19,497 votes

Again, note that I‑601, I‑960, and HJR 4204 all passed by just a slim mar­gin. In each case, the dif­fer­ence between yes and no was less than 40,000 votes.

That’s about the vot­ing pop­u­la­tion of sev­er­al small towns.

I‑601 actu­al­ly passed in few­er coun­ties than I‑960 did, which part­ly explains why I‑960 slight­ly out­per­formed I‑601. How­ev­er, the results are still not far apart. That’s because the mar­gin of vic­to­ry for the Forces of Good went up in the coun­ties that were won in 2007 (King, Thurston, San Juan, Whit­man). Most of the coun­ties that flipped to the yes side are rur­al, con­ser­v­a­tive, and have a small pop­u­la­tion.

Pro­po­nents of I‑1185 use every oppor­tu­ni­ty they get to claim that vot­ers have been con­sis­tent­ly and over­whelm­ing­ly sup­port­ive of super­ma­jor­i­ty vote require­ments on rev­enue-rais­ing bills. But that’s not just not true.

As I have doc­u­ment­ed in this post, they are inflat­ing the num­ber of times that vot­ers have said yes to these schemes, and they are not acknowl­edg­ing that vot­ers have also reject­ed super­ma­jor­i­ty vote schemes.

The Seat­tle Times, which likes to con­stant­ly remind us that it has won Pulitzer Prizes for inves­tiga­tive report­ing, does not pro­vide any of this con­text in today’s arti­cle about I‑1185, which is very unfor­tu­nate. They claim to strive for objec­tive, neu­tral report­ing. But Andrew Gar­ber’s sto­ry sim­ply leaves too much impor­tant infor­ma­tion out to meet our def­i­n­i­tion of objec­tive or fair.

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One Comment

  1. Poor Andrew. Even the media ignores him!

    # by John :: September 10th, 2012 at 5:08 PM

One Ping

  1. […] As I doc­u­ment­ed last week, on this mat­ter, the elec­toral his­to­ry is mixed. Vot­ers nar­row­ly approved I‑601 in 1993 while defeat­ing I‑602 (a sim­i­lar, more extreme mea­sure); in 2007, the peo­ple nar­row­ly approved I‑960 while also approv­ing HJR 4204, which abol­ished super­ma­jor­i­ty vote require­ments for school levies. […]