By Sarah Schrock
Washington state voters had four ballot initiatives to vote on last week, three of which passed. What is interesting about these initiatives and the results is that they don’t really align with each other.
I find it odd that Washington state voters said “no” to carbon fees and “yes” to gun control, “no” to taxing sodas but “yes” to law enforcement’s restrained use of deadly force.
If you are like me, reading these initiatives can be anything but clear. It seems to me by the time you read the title and text, often you’re not sure if a yes or no vote supports or bans a certain action.
An initiative’s language is carefully reviewed by the Secretary of State’s Code Reviser, then verified by the Attorney General who drafts the title, summary, and text that is written on the ballot.
Well, that explains the confusion — it’s written by an attorney. Attorneys are trained to use language in defense and persuasion, and if you’ve ever read a legal document (like a will), it’s akin to reading a different language.
Quite commonly, these initiatives are written in a manner that the text uses negatives. So a “yes” vote is really a “no”, or a “no” is really a “yes” for the issue being contested. Take for example I-1964. The text read, “This measure would prohibit new or increased local taxes, fees, or assessments on raw or processed foods or beverages (with exceptions), or ingredients thereof, unless effective by Jan. 15, 2018, or generally applicable.” The use of the term “prohibit” makes a “yes” vote a “no.”
Sounds great — no new taxes on essential items. Liberals typically criticize sales taxes because they are considered regressive, impacting lower income households at a higher proportion than higher income folks. And, in fact, that is the argument the “yes” proponents campaigned on and won — threatening that cities and towns are going to tax our food.
But to understand what you were voting for, or against, you needed to have an understanding of how the current law stands and who was behind it. Washington state jurisdictions can only impose sales tax on items when the state already collects a sales tax on an item. Washington state doesn’t tax groceries, so local municipalities can’t either. Effectively, there would have been no change by a “yes” vote on raw, unprocessed, fresh foods — the kind that is good for us.
What was up for grabs in this initiative were processed, prepared, and packaged items — most notably bottled beverages. And wouldn’t you know it, the largest contributors to this initiative were Coca Cola, Dr. Pepper, and Red Bull — multi-billion-dollar enterprises with absolutely no stake in local issues or concern for public health. The initiative was a direct response to Seattle’s recent soda tax that has been wildly successful, bringing in over $10 million in the first six months to fund a variety of efforts including emergency food programs, early learning and community colleges.
Washington state voters have now stripped away local authority to tax unhealthy foods and beverages that are known to have widespread health impacts that lead to obesity and chronic health problems. This doesn’t bode well for small towns like Twisp, because every time we strip away a local jurisdiction’s control over matters of taxation, small towns are be left with fewer ways to leverage revenue for services that are difficult to come by in rural areas.
These ballot measures are carefully written and reviewed by smart people, yet confusion persists. I wonder, if the initiative had been written as a positive statement to reflect the actual change in the law like this: “Should local governments retain their authority to impose new or increased local taxes on processed foods or beverages known to be unhealthy (with exceptions), or ingredients thereof, unless effective by Jan, 15, 2018, or generally applicable” — what would Washington voters have voted?