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Message to the Other Washington: Read Our Lips



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It may be a few days before Washington voters know the identity of their second senator, but there’s little doubt where they stand on new taxes. Initiative 1098, which would have instituted the Evergreen State’s first income tax, got thumped. With two-thirds of voters rejecting the measure (as of this writing), the defeat may well save the state from income-tax proposals for years to come.

It failed because voters aren’t as stupid as the measure’s backers assumed.

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As written, the income tax would have applied only to the wealthy, with a 5 percent tax rate applied to income over $200,000 for individuals and $400,000 for couples. Income over $500,000 for individuals and $1 million for couples would have faced a 9 percent tax.

But the first ads supporting 1098 tried to claim that the measure was actually a middle-class tax cut. “Middle-class families are struggling,” Bill Gates Sr. — the measure’s friendly public face  – said sympathetically to a soothing piano melody. The ad, “paid for by Washingtonians for Education, Health Care and Tax Relief,” explained how the measure would cut 20 percent off of state property taxes (a very small share of overall property taxes paid) and offer a larger credit to small businesses against the business and occupation tax. It boasted that the measure would raise some $2 billion for education and health care. But never once did the ad mention the words “income tax.”

That was simply too much, even for the mainstream local media. The Seattle Times called the chief claims of 1098 backers “lies.” And on a local weekly political program, King 5 TV political reporter Robert Mak forced Gates to admit that the tax cut was “not a huge factor.”

Even before October’s massive ad blitz against the measure, a King 5 poll showed nearly 9 in 10 voters believed the income tax would eventually reach people making less than $200,000.

Opponents took that doubt and hammered it home in TV and radio ads with a remarkably consistent message. On TV, a stout housewife worried the tax would eventually hit people like her. A radio ad laughed away the claims that the tax would be only for the rich, likening the claims to those for a product that will help you “Lose weight now! Effortlessly while you sleep! Faster than starvation!”

Backers of 1098 tried to claim that the initiative could not be changed without a vote of the people. Nice try. Washington voters know perfectly well that the state constitution allows the legislature to suspend initiatives with a majority vote after two years.

The reason voters know this is that the legislature has actually done just that, more or less every time voters tried to limit spending and taxes. In 2005, it suspended I-601, which limited spending increases to a three-year average of population growth and inflation — and promptly raised spending more than 30 percent over the next four years. And voters probably noticed that another initiative to require a two-thirds vote for tax hikes was on the ballot this year — the last supermajority requirement having been suspended approximately a minute and a half after its two-year grace period ended in 2009.

By the way, that initiative — I-1053 — passed with two-thirds of the vote as well.

– Anna Duff blogs at http://sunbreaks.typepad.com.



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