Commentary: A warning about warning labels — new law aims to thwart initiatives


Democrats are telling us Initiative 2109 will blow a $5.6 billion hole in the state budget. That’s the initiative to repeal the state’s new income tax on capital gains.

They say it will devastate education, child care and early learning. It’s “even worse than we thought,” the Senate Democratic leader declared in a recent press release.

Oh yes, the sky is falling.

These wild exaggerations show how desperate our colleagues are to retain an income tax they passed with the hope they might someday expand it into a general income tax on everyone. Nevermind that the people of the state are dead-set opposed.

But there is another meaning we can read into this argument. This is a preview of a tactic that will be used to frighten voters this election season, when this initiative and five others will appear on the ballot. For the first time, we will see a state-sanctioned smear campaign in which the might and power of government will be misused to convince the people of Washington to vote no.

Starting this year, the state attorney general will be permitted — required, actually — to write warning labels for any initiative that reduces taxes or fees. These 15-word “public investment statements” will appear in the state voters’ pamphlet, mandated by a new state law.

So get set for something like “WARNING: The Attorney General has determined that voting yes is hazardous to Washington’s health.”

The statements won’t use those words, but they will have the same meaning. Of the six initiatives that are advancing this year, we will see warnings on at least three of them. As the ranking Republican on the State Government and Elections Committee, I want to take this opportunity to cry foul — while I still can.

This law is an insidious effort to interfere with initiative campaigns in our state, passed in 2022 when everyone knew an initiative like 2109 was coming. Ordinarily this ballot measure would be a slam dunk — the people have voted against an income tax 11 times. Our colleagues needed an edge, and House Bill 1876 was their solution. Republicans voted no, but Democrats had the votes to pass it.

At the time, they said this was a measure to “promote transparency.” So, what’s the matter with telling voters how a tax-revolt initiative will affect the state government?

Well, many voters rely on the voters’ pamphlet as an objective source of information. You have a statement for an initiative, and you have a statement against it; everything else is neutral. Now we’ll have the attorney general putting his thumb on the scale with a factual-sounding statement about budgetary devastation, a hit to schools, maybe putting old people out into the snow. Those of us who serve in the Legislature know how ridiculous this argument is.

For one thing, on this particular initiative, we’re talking about repealing an income tax that has only been collected once, in 2023. It proved a billion-dollar windfall for the state. That $5.6 billion figure our friends are using is through 2029. They presume we won’t chase tax-generating activity out of state, which is already happening. And even without this new income tax, our public schools would still be getting more money than they did before it passed. That’s hardly devastation.

Bigger than that, the idea that any particular program is harmed by any particular tax cut is political nonsense. It’s always a matter of spending priorities. If the people tell us to cut taxes, we can take the money from the Department of Waste, the Bureau of Redundancy or the Office of Less Important Things. Most of the time we don’t even need to do that. Our tax receipts usually grow so much from year to year that we can paper over any gaps. Even without this unneeded income tax, state taxes doubled in a decade.

These new warning labels will tell only part of the story, and they will be a pretty sketchy version of the truth at that.

Sadly, this is the only chance I will have to offer this warning about warning labels, via official means. I am permitted to discuss this year’s initiatives only because they were submitted to the Legislature this year for our approval. No one expects we will be allowed to vote, meaning they proceed to the ballot. Once we adjourn March 7, legislative ethics rules sensibly won’t allow me to use my office to advocate a position.

What galls me is that our attorney general is allowed to use his office to mislead the public right up to election day.


Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, is ranking Republican on the Senate State Government and Elections Committee.