December 2015

Tax Issues on the Ballot Around the U.S.

By Amy K. Frantz

In the November 3, 2015, election, voters in a few states were able to consider tax-related measures on the ballot. For supporters of lower taxes and limited government the results were somewhat mixed.

In Washington State voters approved I-1366, an initiative statute, to reduce that state’s sales tax from 6.5 percent to 5.5 percent unless the Legislature places an amendment on a future ballot to require a two-thirds approval by the Legislature to increase taxes.[1]  In Washington only the Legislature can place a measure on the ballot to amend the state’s Constitution; citizens can only petition to place statutes on the ballot.  Several times in the past voters have approved the two-thirds supermajority vote requirement as a statute, however, each time the Legislature has simply repealed the statute and gone ahead and raised taxes with a simple majority vote.  Citizen supporters decided to try a different method to make the two-thirds supermajority vote requirement binding on the Legislature with I-1366; however, it is certain that this measure will be tied up in court challenges for some time.

Washington voters also considered four Advisory Votes, in which the Legislature asks voters to advise whether some recent tax hikes should be maintained or repealed. Voters recommended maintaining a tax on crude oil or petroleum products transported by railroad and a medical marijuana sales tax, but supported the repeal of additional taxes on motor vehicles and special fuels by a vote of 65 percent.[2]  These Advisory Votes are non-binding, so it is unlikely, given its history of ignoring citizen votes on taxes, that the Legislature will actually repeal the fuel tax increase.

In Ohio, the main issue on the ballot was the legalization of marijuana, which was rejected by voters, in part perhaps because the measure also granted a monopoly right to supply the drug to owners of specific parcels of land. A companion measure was placed on the ballot that would prohibit initiatives that grant monopolies to specific individuals or organizations, which was approved by voters.  However there is some controversy with this initiative and the impact it may have in the future on other tax issues on the ballot.

The Editorial Board of the Cincinnati Enquirer shared its concerns when it recommended a no vote on Issue 2, the measure prohibiting the granting of monopolies:

A key part of Issue 2 is a run-on sentence, and it is unclear if the last portion of the sentence — ‘that is not then available to other similarly situated person or nonpublic entities’ — applies to the entire sentence or just the previous part of the sentence. This tangle could chill citizen involvement in Ohio’s ballot initiative process and unintentionally apply Issue 2 to constitutional amendments regarding tax rates….  Issue 2 bears close scrutiny because it gives tremendous power to the state Ballot Board, which writes the official ballot language for items facing a vote.  The board would have the power to make a ballot measure survive a two-question hurdle on the ballot, if the board believes the proposal in question is a monopoly or the like.  The first question would, for example, slap the monopoly label on the ballot measure and ask voters to approve the designation before deciding on the proposed issue.  The double-barreled warning to voters would likely prove fatal for the measure.[3]

Colorado voters approved Proposition BB to allow the state to spend the $66 million in tax revenue raised from the sale of recreational marijuana. The Council on State Taxation reports:

Had the measure failed, then per Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights the money would be returned to taxpayers in the form of a refund of between $6 and $16 per person, depending on income level, and a total of $41 million for marijuana growers and users in the form of tax breaks. Advocates of the measure say that the revenue will now go toward school construction, law enforcement, and youth services. The proposition passed by a vote of 69-31.[4]

Finally, in Texas, voters overwhelmingly approved measures to amend the Texas Constitution to increase the exemption from public school property taxes, increase the tax exemption for the surviving spouse of a disabled veteran, and to dedicate some sales and car tax revenue to fund road projects. Each of these measures was approved with more than 80 percent support.[5]

These were just a few of the ballot measures considered by voters in several states around the United States in November. Taxpayers will benefit from some of these measures, while other measures will have an adverse impact on the taxpaying citizens in those states.

Amy K. Frantz is Vice President of Public Interest Institute.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute or Tax Education Foundation.  They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.

[1] Ballotwatch – Election Results 2015,” Initiative & Referendum Institute, 2015 No. 2 November, p. 2, <http://iandrinstitute.org/BW%202015-2%20Results%20(v1).pdf> accessed November 10, 2015.

[2] “Two state initiatives, four advisory votes on the Nov. 3 ballot,” Port Townsend Leader, October 14, 2015, <http://www.ptleader.com/news/election/two-state-initiatives-four-advisory-votes-on-the-nov-ballot/article_71976dc6-7205-11e5-be1d-ebe332b923dd.html> accessed November 12, 2015.

[3] “Editorial: Issue 2 risks citizen access to ballot,” Cincinnati Enquirer, October 18, 2015, <http://www.cincinnati.com/story/opinion/editorials/2015/10/18/editorial-issue-risks-citizen-access-ballot/74198560/> accessed November 12, 2015.

[4] “2015 Elections Recap,” COST Legislative Alert, Council on State Taxation, Issue 15-41, November 10, 2015.

[5] “Ballotwatch – Election Results 2015.”