Washington State’s Referendum 52 would invest $500 million in the best efficiencies that money can buy in local schools—from elementary schools to universities and community colleges. Money saved by schools on energy bills would go to doing what schools do best: educating students and preparing them for the future. In the bargain, much needed investments in school buildings would create jobs for local workers in the efficiency and construction fields.
The folks at the Association of Washington Business and the Seattle Times want the ballot description for Referendum 52 to state that the legislation would create a “brand new tax.” But they’re helping to get out the wrong message—and their efforts are misleading to voters. And the editorial in the Seattle Times also missed an important fact: Representative Hans Dunshee is asking for a ballot title change as well, “because proponents of R-52 are fully committed to ensuring transparency and clarity, and we are confident that an open and honest debate will result in strong public support for this measure.”
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The fact is that the bottled water tax is not a new tax created in Referendum 52. Instead what passage of the referendum will do is extend what will be an existing tax on bottled water, closing what amounts to a tax loophole for bottled water sales. Thus it is difficult to argue Referendum 52 will lead to a new tax increase.
And whether or not the AWB’s intention is to muddy waters, it seems to be working. Their incorrect assertion about how the revenues from the extension would be used is being repeated. Here’s an example from the Spokesman-Review:
The legislation added a referendum clause, allowing voters to decide whether they want to pay for the bonds by making the now-temporary tax on bottled water permanent, and the source for paying off the bonds.
That simply isn’t true. With the AWB’s efforts to make the referendum about taxes, it’s no wonder the reporter might have made this leap. The subtitle of the AWB’s press release gets it wrong too, suggesting that the “bottled-water tax would become permanent to help service bond debt.”
The revenue generated by the bottled water tax DOES NOT pay for the school retrofits, nor is it dedicated for debt service (which even the AWB’s legal brief gets wrong, suggesting that the tax would “provide partial funding for debt service on the debt issue”). The extension of the tax was attached—from what we’ve heard from various sources—to the referendum to appease the State Treasurer who was worried about the state’s credit rating (see our analysis of his worries here).
Whether the AWB is successful at their June 11th hearing to change the ballot title, the bottom line is that Referendum 52 doesn’t create any new taxes. But what it does do is create a new source of revenue—without any new taxes or taking money away from existing needs—for much needed school retrofits so kids have a healthy and comfortable place to learn.