The 6 voter initiatives likely heading to Washington ballots this fall, explained
Six Republican-backed policy initiatives have qualified for consideration in the Washington Legislature and will likely appear on voters' ballots this November.
The measures represent a major challenge to laws passed by the Legislature's Democratic majority in recent years.
This is also the largest group of initiatives in front of state lawmakers at the same time in a single year.
Here's what you need to know about these proposals.
Probably the most consequential of the group, Initiative 2117 would eliminate the central part of the state's landmark Climate Commitment Act: the cap-and-trade program, which sets limits on how much big companies can pollute and requires them to buy "emissions allowances." The idea is that the number of allowances will go down over time, with the goal being a carbon-neutral Washington by 2050.
The carbon auctions started just last year, but critics of the program blame it for high gas prices and call it a "hidden gas tax." People who are supposed to be protected from any rising fuel costs tied to the program, like farmers and truckers, have complained that the state hasn't created an adequate system to facilitate those exemptions.
Some tribal leaders have also expressed frustration with the policy, saying it violates tribal sovereignty, as oil companies pass along higher costs to distributors and customers.
Meanwhile, supporters of the Climate Commitment Act point out that Washington's average cost of a gallon of gas has been among the highest in the country for years. There is data that shows the cap-and-trade program has had an impact on gas prices, but the exact number varies depending on who you ask. It’s unclear exactly how much repealing the program would affect prices at the pump.
Democrats and others who want to keep the law intact also point to the funding it provides for projects aimed at making communities across the state more adaptable to the already-changing climate and helping them transition away from fossil fuels.
The carbon emissions auctions brought in roughly $1.8 billion in state revenue in the program’s first year, with those dollars going toward climate-related projects across the state's transportation, construction and operating budgets. The program pays for things like electric buses and ferries, wildfire protections, solar panels, salmon recovery, and a lot more.
Repealing the program would require the state to find other ways to fund many of those programs or majorly change course on its climate plans – including the timeline for transitioning away from the use of fossil fuels. It would also be a hard hit to Gov. Jay Inslee's legacy as he leaves office next year, after spending much of his time in office focused on climate issues.
Another proposal that could make big money waves is Initiative 2109 – it would repeal the state's capital gains tax. The tax applies to profits from sales of assets, like stocks and bonds, that exceed $250,000. The tax also was in effect for the first time last year, bringing in roughly $889 million of revenue from about 3,700 people. That money goes toward education – specifically early learning and child care, and school construction costs.
Critics have challenged the tax in court, saying it violates the state constitution's rules around property taxes, but the State Supreme Court held it up as an excise tax last spring. Some had hoped that the U.S. Supreme Court would hear an appeal, but SCOTUS rejected that effort in mid-January.
Critics say the state's upholding of the tax could open the door for new taxes down the road. They also worry that it could drive away big business leaders that have historically spurred major economic growth in Washington.
But supporters of the tax say it's an important step toward making the state's tax structure more fair. A recent study cited the capital gains tax – and the state's new Working Families Tax Credit – as key reasons why Washington no longer holds the title of the country's most regressive tax code. That title now belongs to Florida.
If the capital gains tax is repealed, lawmakers would have to rethink their funding plans for school construction needs, which are especially dire in rural communities, as well as support for child care and early learning as families continue to struggle with access and affordability.
Another tax-focused proposal, Initiative 2124, would allow people to opt out of the WA Cares long-term health care payroll tax, which also just went into effect last year.
The program pulls 58 cents out of every $100 that workers in Washington make – for a person with a $50,000 annual salary, that's about $290 dollars a year. That money then goes into a fund that allows people who pay in for 10 years to receive up to $36,500 (adjusted for inflation) to cover long-term health care costs. People will be able to start using the benefit in 2026. There are some exemptions, including for people who work in Washington but live out of state, and military spouses.
Critics say the payroll tax is another cost burden for working families for too little of a benefit, and question the sustainability of the program. They also note that some people already have private insurance for long-term health care, and have concerns about what happens for people who pay into the fund but later move out of state.
People who favor the WA Cares program say allowing anyone to opt out would essentially destabilize the program, which could take away an important public benefit for people who need help paying for long-term health care support and can't afford private insurance.
Lawmakers put a police vehicle pursuit law in place in 2021 and slightly changed the measure last year.
People who want more parameters around police pursuits say the law is necessary because those chases are dangerous. But people who worry about crime want the state to give police more leeway to do their jobs.
Initiative 2081 creates a so-called "Parents' Bill of Rights" that outlines parents' authority to oversee their child's education and records — including mental health and medical care provided at school. It echoes similar movements across the country that have ramped up in response to schools' diversity and inclusion policies, particularly those in support of LGBTQ youth.
Backers of I-2081 say it's a vital measure to ensure parents know what's happening with their kids.
But critics say the initiative is unnecessary and duplicative of existing state policies that already provide parents access to their kids' schooling. Some worry that the initiative, if adopted, could put children's privacy at risk. Experts also say some of the language in the initiative is unclear and could play out differently depending on how schools interpret it.
Now, Washington doesn't have a personal income tax, but Initiative 2111 would pre-emptively prohibit the state and local governments from creating any.
Democratic lawmakers have expressed interest in making more changes to the state's tax code, citing the inequity that's baked into the current structure.
So supporters of I-2111 say the measure would send a strong message about what Washingtonians do or don't want to happen to their taxes in the future.
What's next for all these initiatives?
The six initiatives have to stop at the Legislature first, before heading to voters in the fall. That's because for these types of initiatives, lawmakers could enact them as-is, or propose alternatives to appear alongside the initiatives on voters' ballots this November.
As of Jan. 26, all of the initiatives have qualified to appear before the Legislature, so it's up to the Democratic majority to decide what happens next. It's almost certain that none of the initiatives will be enacted as they are written. But Democratic leaders in Olympia say they still have too many unanswered questions about the full legal and financial weight of the proposals to decide on next steps yet.
"We've been spending a lot of time talking internally about: What do we think these initiatives do, what kind of latitude does the legislature have to consider alternatives? If we were to pursue an alternative, what could that cover?" House Majority Leader Joe Fitzgibbon (D-West Seattle) told reporters Tuesday.
Republican leaders, meanwhile, say they want to see all of the initiatives enacted and have been pushing for public hearings on each of the proposals. Democrats have so far rejected those efforts, but the Legislature can take action on any of the proposals until March 7, when session is supposed to end.
What makes them "Republican-backed" initiatives?
The chair of the Washington State Republican Party, who is also a state lawmaker, Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen), filed the paperwork to get the initiative process started last year. Republican megadonor Brian Heywood financially backed the effort, allowing his group Let's Go Washington to pay people who helped gather the signatures required to move the proposals forward.
Heywood supported an attempt to put 11 initiatives on the ballot a couple of years ago, but none of them received enough signatures. So this time around, Heywood has spent millions of dollars of his own money to help get the six proposals moving, according to the state's Public Disclosure Commission.
"As I've been here over the last 13 years, I've watched a group of legislators begin to pass laws that I don't think are even in touch with their own constituency in their own party," Heywood told the Northwest News Network during an interview in August.
And there is evidence that some moderate Democrat voters support the proposals – which will be important to watch heading into November.
[Copyright 2024 Northwest News Network]