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.

Thursday, November 4th, 2021

Here’s what Washington voters said last spring when asked a neutral question about our new state capital gains tax on the wealthy

A lit­tle over six months ago, the Wash­ing­ton State Leg­is­la­ture adjourned Sine Die, hav­ing, for the first time in recent his­to­ry, tak­en a sig­nif­i­cant step to improve our state’s upside down tax code, which has long been rigged in favor of the wealthy and pow­er­ful. That step was the enact­ment of ESSB 5096, which levies a new state cap­i­tal gains tax on the wealthy — some­thing that both NPI and Gov­er­nor Inslee had been urg­ing the Leg­is­la­ture to do for over half a decade.

Wash­ing­ton’s right wing, which is strong­ly opposed to any and all ideas for mak­ing our tax code fair­er and more pro­gres­sive, is intent on get­ting ESSB 5096 over­turned. Law­suits have already been filed chal­leng­ing the new law, but if those aren’t suc­cess­ful, the right wing’s only recourse would be the court of pub­lic opin­ion. The right wing was­n’t able to qual­i­fy a mea­sure to the 2021 bal­lot to chal­lenge ESSB 5096, but Tim Eyman and Jim Walsh are hop­ing to for next year.

In the mean­time, ESSB 5096 got sub­ject­ed to Tim Eyman’s auto­mat­i­cal­ly trig­gered, anti-tax bal­lot pro­pa­gan­da, which takes the form of what Eyman’s Ini­tia­tive 960 calls “advi­so­ry votes.” Vot­ers saw the fol­low­ing state­ment dic­tat­ed by one of Eyman’s old ini­tia­tives on their bal­lots last month and ear­ly this month:

The leg­is­la­ture imposed, with­out a vote of the peo­ple, a 7% tax on cap­i­tal gains in excess of $250,000, with excep­tions, cost­ing $5,736,000,000 in its first ten years, for gov­ern­ment spending.

This tax increase should be:

They were then pre­sent­ed with two choices:

[  ] Repealed
[  ] Maintained

Vot­ers were not told that regard­less of how they vot­ed, the law would not be changed. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the “Repealed” posi­tion is “win­ning,” because all of Eyman’s “advi­so­ry votes” are real­ly push polls that sug­gest their own answers.

Eyman and his fol­low­ers are already try­ing to use the “result” to their advan­tage, with Eyman excit­ed­ly claim­ing in all caps on Tues­day night that vot­ers had repu­di­at­ed the new state cap­i­tal gains tax on the wealthy.

As I explained last month, how­ev­er, when you ask a loaded ques­tion, you can’t find out what peo­ple real­ly think. It’s sim­ply not possible.

The “results” of “Advi­so­ry Vote #37” are thus com­plete­ly worthless.

When Wash­ing­to­ni­ans are asked a neu­tral ques­tion about ESSB 5096, they respond very dif­fer­ent­ly. Today, to demon­strate that point, we’re releas­ing a poll ques­tion from last spring, in which we asked Wash­ing­to­ni­ans about our new state cap­i­tal gains tax about one month after it had been passed. As you can see, our ques­tion pro­vid­ed con­text as well as pro­vid­ing argu­ments for and against:

QUESTION: Pro­po­nents say that Wash­ing­ton State’s new state cap­i­tal gains tax on the wealthy will raise about $500 mil­lion a year in cru­cial fund­ing for edu­ca­tion in Wash­ing­ton State, includ­ing ear­ly learn­ing and child­care, and will help bal­ance our upside-down tax code by requir­ing the wealth­i­est 8,000 indi­vid­u­als to step up and pay their fair share in dues to our state. Oppo­nents say that the new state cap­i­tal gains tax on the wealthy is an uncon­sti­tu­tion­al and ille­gal income tax that will hurt job cre­ation and put the state at a com­pet­i­tive dis­ad­van­tage, hurt­ing the whole econ­o­my while fail­ing to address regres­siv­i­ty. Both sides agree that the text of the cap­i­tal gains tax law ful­ly exempts retire­ment accounts, fam­i­ly farms, and all real estate. Hav­ing heard the argu­ments for and against, do you strong­ly sup­port, some­what sup­port, some­what oppose, or strong­ly oppose Washington’s new state cap­i­tal gains tax on the wealthy?

ANSWERS:

  • Sup­port: 57% 
    • Strong­ly: 39%
    • Some­what: 18%
  • Oppose: 40%
    • Some­what: 10%
    • Strong­ly: 30%
  • Not sure: 3%

Our sur­vey of 992 like­ly 2022 Wash­ing­ton State vot­ers was in the field from Tues­day, May 25th through Wednes­day, May 26th, 2021.

It uti­lizes a blend­ed method­ol­o­gy, with auto­mat­ed phone calls to land­lines (50%) and text mes­sage answers from cell phone only respon­dents (50%).

The poll was con­duct­ed by Pub­lic Pol­i­cy Polling for the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute, and has a mar­gin of error of +/- 3.1% at the 95% con­fi­dence interval.

As we can see, after hear­ing the argu­ments for and against, includ­ing the argu­ment that the new state cap­i­tal gains tax is an “uncon­sti­tu­tion­al and ille­gal income tax,” a sig­nif­i­cant major­i­ty of vot­ers still sup­port the tax.

This find­ing is con­sis­tent, inci­den­tal­ly, with over six years of NPI polling data (2015–2021) indi­cat­ing that Wash­ing­to­ni­ans’ sup­port for a state-lev­el cap­i­tal gains tax on the wealthy is in the high fifties or low six­ties. Oth­er pri­vate and pub­lic polls have found pub­lic sup­port for a cap­i­tal gains tax on the wealthy as well.

We have long said at NPI that the answers you get depend on the ques­tions you ask. Word­ing mat­ters. Fram­ing mat­ters. That’s why, yes­ter­day, NPI asked oth­er media out­lets to appro­pri­ate­ly scru­ti­nize “advi­so­ry votes” when report­ing on them so that peo­ple can under­stand what they real­ly are.

Brett Davis of The Cen­ter Square — which is owned by the right wing Franklin News Ser­vice — saw our media advi­so­ry and asked the right wing Wash­ing­ton Pol­i­cy Cen­ter’s Paul Gup­py to respond, which he glad­ly did:

Paul Gup­py, inter­im pres­i­dent of the Seat­tle-based Wash­ing­ton Pol­i­cy Cen­ter, takes a dif­fer­ent view.

“Wash­ing­ton Pol­i­cy Cen­ter takes advi­so­ry votes seri­ous­ly,” he said, not­ing advi­so­ry votes offer the chance to hear back from a much larg­er num­ber of peo­ple as com­pared to typ­i­cal polls with much small­er sam­ple sizes.

“It’s not a sam­ple,” he said of advi­so­ry votes. “It’s a direct answer to a question.”

A few com­ments on Gup­py’s first statement:

  • It is irrel­e­vant how many peo­ple respond to “advi­so­ry votes”: they don’t actu­al­ly allow leg­is­la­tors or any­one to “hear back” from peo­ple because a neu­tral ques­tion isn’t being asked. This appar­ent­ly can­not be said enough: if you ask a loaded ques­tion, the result­ing data will be worth­less. It does­n’t mat­ter how many peo­ple are asked the ques­tion. If the inputs are bad, the out­puts will be bad. Garbage in, garbage out.
  • Sim­i­lar­ly, with respect to sam­pling in pub­lic opin­ion research, what mat­ters is not the size of the sam­ple, but the qual­i­ty of the sam­ple. If the sam­ple is appro­pri­ate­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive and the ques­tion appro­pri­ate­ly word­ed, then the results are still cred­i­ble and use­ful. A big­ger sam­ple allows the mar­gin of error to be low­er, but a small­er sam­ple can still return valid data.
  • And final­ly, polling like our research from back in May has valid­i­ty because the results were reached using the sci­en­tif­ic method, where­as “advi­so­ry votes” have no valid­i­ty because they are anti-tax pro­pa­gan­da designed to under­mine pub­lic con­fi­dence in government.

Mov­ing on:

“They call it pro­pa­gan­da” when the results are not to their lik­ing, Gup­py said of NPI’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of advi­so­ry votes.

“It’s pick­ing and choosing.”

Wrong. We con­sid­er all advi­so­ry votes pro­pa­gan­da regard­less of how peo­ple respond to them. There is no “pick­ing and choos­ing.” The “results” are irrel­e­vant one hun­dred per­cent of the time. They sim­ply can­not be used to gauge pub­lic opin­ion. In fact, their real rea­son for being is to influ­ence pub­lic opinion.

[Gup­py] also took issue with NPI’s claim vot­ers aren’t informed that regard­less of how they vote on advi­so­ry votes, noth­ing will change.

“But it’s impor­tant to go a step fur­ther when writ­ing about ‘advi­so­ry votes’ and explain that vot­ers are not told that their col­lec­tive respons­es will not change fis­cal pol­i­cy,” Vil­leneuve wrote. “There is no dis­claimer anywhere.”

Not­ing that the non-bind­ing nature of advi­so­ry votes is ubiq­ui­tous in news cov­er­age, Gup­py said NPI is essen­tial­ly derid­ing vot­ers as “rubes and dupes.”

Wrong again. We believe that Wash­ing­ton vot­ers are smart and intel­li­gent, and that it is total­ly inap­pro­pri­ate and irre­spon­si­ble to be wast­ing their time and mon­ey putting anti-tax pro­pa­gan­da in front of them and ask­ing to respond.

The soon­er we can repeal “advi­so­ry votes” and replace them with use­ful, cred­i­ble infor­ma­tion about the Leg­is­la­ture’s work, the bet­ter.

If state law con­tained a mech­a­nism for auto­mat­i­cal­ly plac­ing infor­ma­tion on the bal­lot sup­port­ing pro­gres­sive caus­es, you can bet that Paul Gup­py and The Wash­ing­ton Pol­i­cy Cen­ter would be cam­paign­ing to abol­ish it. So would the Free­dom Foun­da­tion and all the oth­er right wing groups around these parts.

But Tim Eyman’s anti-tax pro­pa­gan­da? That’s okay. That they’d like to keep. Because it serves their own anti-tax agen­das. They want to keep our tax code rigged in favor of the wealthy and the pow­er­ful. Permanently.

Last­ly:

As to NPI’s claim advi­so­ry votes are prej­u­di­cial because the word­ing fol­lows a for­mat cre­at­ed by Eyman, Gup­py point­ed out advi­so­ry votes were “enact­ed democratically.”

[…]

NPI is going after the wrong tar­get in Guppy’s view. “It’s going after the ori­gin of some­thing, rather than the thing itself,” he said.

Wash­ing­ton vot­ers don’t agree. We’ve now asked vot­ers three times if they’d like to get rid of “advi­so­ry votes,” and each time, we’ve found a plu­ral­i­ty in favor, with a small­er per­cent­age opposed and a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age not sure.

We asked twice in 2019 and again last year.

In Octo­ber of 2020, 42% of respon­dents backed repeal, 22% favored keep­ing “advi­so­ry votes” and 35% were not sure. You can see the ques­tion we asked and the pri­or 2019 respons­es by open­ing this pre­sen­ta­tion. Fur­ther infor­ma­tion about our Octo­ber 2020 sur­vey is avail­able in this polling ret­ro­spec­tive.

The fact that so many peo­ple aren’t sure what to think about “advi­so­ry votes” even when argu­ments for and against them are pre­sent­ed is evi­dence that peo­ple are unfa­mil­iar with them even though they’ve showed up our bal­lots for ten years.

“Advi­so­ry votes” get very lit­tle news cov­er­age. And the cov­er­age they do get is usu­al­ly not thor­ough, or crit­i­cal. We know because it’s some­thing we track.

In fair­ness to those who have been tasked with writ­ing about them, they’re real­ly hard to write about. We chose a pro­po­nents say vs. oppo­nents say frame for our poll ques­tion pre­cise­ly because describ­ing “advi­so­ry votes” in neu­tral terms is darn near impos­si­ble. “Advi­so­ry vote” itself is a mis­nomer. Call­ing “advi­so­ry votes” pro­pa­gan­da is, of course, express­ing an opin­ion about their content.

Since we are prac­ti­tion­ers of advo­ca­cy jour­nal­ism, we can freely offer our opin­ion, and we do. But reporters striv­ing for objec­tiv­i­ty have to be care­ful how they char­ac­ter­ize things, since their aim is try to avoid inject­ing bias in their reporting.

What they can do, how­ev­er, is point out that the lan­guage of “advi­so­ry votes” is by any objec­tive assess­ment prej­u­di­cial, and that there is cred­i­ble, sci­en­tif­ic research show­ing vot­ers do not want them to con­tin­ue appear­ing on their bal­lots, along with cred­i­ble, sci­en­tif­ic research show­ing that the state’s new cap­i­tal gains tax is sup­port­ed by a major­i­ty of like­ly 2022 Wash­ing­ton voters.

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