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Smell Test: Could Legislature extend income tax to everyone? Yes. Would they? Who knows

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Oct. 19, 2010 at 9:00 am |
October 19, 2010 6:15 pm

WHAT THE ADS SAY: In TV ad after TV ad, opponents of Initiative 1098 have been portraying it as a slippery slope: The income tax may only be on high earners, but the Legislature can extend it to everyone, they say.

It “can be extended to you in just two years,” one says. And a radio ad urges you to “vote no, or you pay an income tax for the rest of your life.”

But a commercial aired recently by the initiative’s supporters says the opposite: “I-1098 can’t be changed without a vote of the people.”

So who’s right?

THE FACTS: I-1098 limits its income tax to people who make more than $200,000, or couples who make more than $400,000.

But the Legislature can change initiatives. Lawmakers would need a two-thirds votes in the House and Senate for the first two years, but only a simple majority after that.

Whether they would make such a big and potentially unpopular change is up for debate. Andrew Garber of the Seattle Times wrote a story Monday looking at that question, and noting that legislators have changed initiatives in the past. Just this year, they suspended tax-limiting Initiative 960.

If the Legislature did enlarge the income tax, it could be put to voters via a referendum. Opponents would need to obtain the signatures of a certain number of voters (the threshold stands at 120,557 today) to put it on the ballot. Or the Legislature could submit it to a vote of the people. The Yes on 1098 campaign says it’s sure voters would get to weigh in.

BOTTOM LINE: It’s a stretch to imply, as Defeat 1098′s radio ad does, that extending it to everyone is a done deal. But the group’s TV ads are correct that it could be extended.

And it’s false to say, as the Yes on 1098 TV ad does, that it “can’t be changed without a vote of the people.” It can. A referendum is entirely possible, but that’s not a done deal either.

UPDATE 6:12 p.m.: It should be noted there’s a provision in I-1098 saying the tax rates may not be increased “without a majority vote of the legislature and submission of the changes to the people for approval.” But that can’t be enforced, because the Legislature can change that provision too. It can change any provision in an initiative.

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