Yesterday, just in time for the 2017 legislative session, pollster Stuart Elway released new results from a recent survey in which his firm asked Washington voters about how and whether we should invest in Washington’s K‑12 schools, which have been badly underfunded for years in defiance of the Washington State Constitution.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly ordered the Legislature to discharge its paramount duty and amply provide for the education of all young people residing within the state. The Legislature has increased education funding, but not by enough to comply with the requirements of the Constitution.
Education funding is thus the most important issue facing the new Legislature, again. Voters told Elway they also see it as the top issue.
Overall, 45% of respondents ranked education first, followed by “the economy”, “taxes”, and transportation. Respondents identifying as Democrats and respondents identifying as independents both pinpointed education as their top issue; for the Republican respondents, it was “taxes”.
Elway then asked about the following “strategies” for funding education:
- Fund public education first with the money available, then fund the rest of state government with the money remaining — even if that means cutting other programs and services.
- Increase taxes on businesses to fund public education without making deep cuts to other state programs and services. This option was modified this year to specify “taxes on businesses,” since that is most of the Governor’s proposal. The change made no significant difference in the response.
- Do as much as possible to fund education without raising taxes and without deep cuts to other programs — even if that means we do not fully fund education.
I put the word strategies in quotes above because in our view, #1 and #3 aren’t actually strategies at all, and should not be characterized as such.
#1 is just not possible and suggests a complete ignorance of how state budgeting works. “Fund education first” is a worthless catchphrase — it’s simply not a strategy. We have many major obligations as a state, more than one of which are constitutionally mandated. We’ve made additional obligations in order to accept federal tax dollars. We can’t neglect those. Robbing Peter to pay Paul won’t work.
#3, meanwhile, is not constitutional and won’t lead to a resolution of the McCleary court case. #3 is what the Legislature has already been doing for years, which is why our public schools remain unacceptably underfunded.
And as for #2, the phrasing Elway chose to use is vague and doesn’t adequately explain what Governor Inslee is proposing. The governor’s budget plan includes a capital gains tax on the wealthy, a pollution tax, and an increase in the business & occupation tax that small businesses would be exempted from.
The words “increase taxes on businesses” lack specificity and leave much to the imagination, so it’s not surprising that 47% responded favorably while 46% responded unfavorably to this question.
Many Washingtonians are business owners; only a fraction of them are wealthy business owners. It must be noted that it is the wealthy that Governor Inslee is proposing pay more in dues to ensure that our schools are fully funded.
We believe the way to resolve McCleary is through progressive revenue reform. Washington has the most upside down tax code in the nation — a tax code that obliges low and middle income families to pay a significant percentage of their income in taxes to support our public services, while the wealthy are asked to pay very little. To make matters worse, we don’t fairly tax businesses, either.
Perhaps our favorite adage here at NPI is the answers you get depend on the questions you ask. I usually include it along with every polling-related post I author because it is so important. It either didn’t occur to Stuart Elway and his firm to ask specifically about progressive revenue reform, or it did and he chose not to.We wish he would have, though, because we’d have been interested in the answers.
Last June, we asked about progressive revenue reform in our statewide poll, and we found very strong support for a capital gains tax on the wealthy, repeal of tax breaks that have failed to create new jobs, and making property taxes fairer.
63% of the likely voters who responded to our survey agreed that Washington’s schools need more funding. Impressively, 65% support a capital gains tax on the wealthy to make this happen, with 46% saying they “strongly support the idea”.
Our survey of 679 likely Washington State voters was in the field from June 14th-15th, 2016; all respondents participated via landline. The poll had a margin of error of +/- 3.8% at the 95% confidence level.
Do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose taxing the capital gains of wealthy individuals to help pay for public schools, colleges and universities?”
These were the answers:
- Support: 65%
- 46% “strongly support” a capital gains tax
- 19% “somewhat support” a capital gains tax
- Oppose: 33%
- 9% “somewhat oppose” a capital gains tax
- 24% “strongly oppose” a capital gains tax
- 2% answered “not sure”
We then asked about recovering revenue for the state by requiring corporations to pay back tax breaks if they did not deliver on promises to create jobs, or they moved jobs out of our state after having received subsidies from fellow taxpayers.
As we suspected, this happens to be a wildly popular idea with broad support from across the political spectrum. Here’s our question:
Do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose legislation requiring corporations to forfeit tax breaks and repay subsidies they previously received if they fail to deliver on their job creation promises, or they move jobs out of Washington State?
These were the answers:
- Support: 79%
- 59% “strongly support” corporate tax accountability
- 20% “somewhat support” corporate tax accountability
- Oppose: 15%
- 9% “somewhat oppose” corporate tax accountability
- 6% “strongly oppose” corporate tax accountability
- 6% answered “not sure”
And here’s our question on property tax reform:
Do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose legislation that would reduce property taxes for middle and lower income households, while slightly increasing them for wealthy families, with no loss of revenue to public services?
These were the answers:
- Support: 67%
- 42% “strongly support” property tax fairness
- 25% “somewhat support” property tax fairness
- Oppose: 31%
- 14% “somewhat oppose” property tax fairness
- 17% “strongly oppose” property tax fairness
- 2% answered “not sure”
We also believe, based on our research, that a majority of Washingtonians support taxing polluters to fund vital public services like our schools.
Again and again, our research has found that the people of Washington are hungry for progressive revenue reform. Even Republican voters are enthusiastic about some of the ideas we’ve asked about. Too bad their party’s chiefs aren’t.
There are many, many approaches we could take to making our upside down tax code fairer, while also bringing in more revenue to fund our schools at the same time. We wish Elway would have asked about some of these approaches, instead of wasting time trying to ascertain if people would be comfortable perpetuating the status quo, which would be totally irresponsible.
We further wish the media would regularly explore the topic of progressive revenue reform instead of just focusing on the conflict in the Legislature. It is news to no one who follows Washington politics that our bicameral Legislature’s four major party caucuses don’t agree on how to address the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.
Stop writing that story over and over, please, and go talk to ordinary Washington families about our school funding crisis. Get their views. Let’s hear more from teachers, parents, students, and activists, and less from lawmakers and lobbyists whose job it is to be in the statehouse during session.
We think it’s vital, when asking people what solutions they support, to be specific. Most Washingtonians aren’t rich and therefore already pay a significant percentage of their income in taxes, because our tax code is the nation’s most regressive.
Hardworking middle and lower income Washingtonians rightly feel it’s time for the wealthy in our state to step up and pay their fair share.
Governor Inslee has showed real leadership with his budget proposal, and we imagine his ideas will get a serious reception in the Democratic-led House.
But Senate Republicans are going to try their darnedest to steer our public discourse away from these worthy ideas and distract us from the real task at hand.
We must be prepared to constantly reframe so we can stay focused on what matters: ensuring our kids get the education they deserve.