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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.

One Comment

  1. John
    Posted September 10th, 2012 at 5:08 PM | Permalink

    Poor Andrew. Even the media ignores him!

One Trackback

  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. […]