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[ ] Repealed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 Not surprisingly, the “Repealed” position is “winning,” because all of Eyman’s “advisory votes” are really push polls that suggest their own answers.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.
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?
- 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.
“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.
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.
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.