What Voters Told Us about Taxes on Election Day

News, Wealth

Election Day 2019 had no shortage of storylines, and it’s unsurprising that the pundit class is more interested in a gubernatorial upset in Kentucky or flipped chambers in Virginia than in, say, Coloradans’ rejection of an effort to weaken the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). But this is the Tax Foundation, where we care a lot about taxes—and if you do too (even a little), join us for a brief review of what voters across the country had to say about taxes on November 5th.

Forgoing Income Taxes Is Still Popular

Surprising no one, Texas voters don’t like income taxes. In an unguarded moment in 1991, newly elected Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock (D) told reporters that the Lone Star State needed an income tax, an issue that looked to dog the lieutenant governor in his 1994 reelection bid, and which his opponents sought to highlight by championing a constitutional amendment banning income taxes. His solution: get out ahead of them with his own constitutional amendment requiring any income tax to be ratified by the people by statewide referendum, while earmarking any revenues from a future income tax to education and property tax relief.

The legislature jumped at the chance and the voters gave their assent, but the idea of a total prohibition never went away. With other tax proposals falling by the wayside in recent years, policymakers revived this idea, and on Tuesday, voters overwhelmingly etched the prohibition into the state constitution, with 75 percent backing the resolution.

For many taxpayers in states like Texas, not having an income tax is an important selling point and a distinction worth the fight. That’s true in red states like Texas and blue states like Washington, where voters have also reiterated their opposition to income taxes on multiple occasions, and where Spokane voters just reiterated their opposition to municipal income taxation, should that opportunity ever arise.

TABOR Isn’t Going Anywhere

The fight over the Taxpayer Bill of Rights is unending in Colorado. To proponents, it’s a safeguard against unlegislated or unwarranted tax increases; to foes, it’s a straitjacket that unduly constraints the state’s options. Previous efforts to chip away at TABOR have failed, even when government revenues were in decline. But proponents thought they had a shot with Proposition CC, which would have suspended the automatic refunds which otherwise go to taxpayers when tax collections rise faster than inflation, instead allowing the state to keep the revenue for transportation and education projects.

Critics didn’t believe that the additional funding would really go exclusively to these purposes. And as it turns out, taxpayers like their refunds and seem to favor the constraints TABOR imposes on the growth of government. In what should have been a good year for weakening TABOR, voters resoundingly rejected Proposition CC, with only 45 percent in support.

Voters Are Open to New “Sin Tax” Revenue

In two California cities, Stanton and Brisbane, voters overwhelmingly endorsed the legalization of marijuana and the subsequent taxation of the new businesses under a multi-rate gross receipts tax. As we have noted elsewhere, the structure of these new taxes leaves much to be desired. Unlike existing marijuana taxes, these taxes are imposed at each stage—cultivation, production, wholesale, and retail—leading to what is known as tax pyramiding. It is doubtful that voters were weighing in on a specific approach to taxation, though, as opposed to bestowing their approval upon the broader ideal of legalization and taxation. Both measures passed with strong supermajorities.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, the legalization and taxation of sports betting won in an extremely tight contest, prevailing with a margin of just one percentage point. Sports betting legalization has had a mixed track record thus far, but it is plausible that the ballot language required by TABOR, which emphasizes increased tax collections (on a new industry), dampened support. Ironically, the language for the TABOR modification was itself quite rosy, asserting that a “yes” vote would not raise taxes and would better fund education and transportation. The new tax will be imposed at a rate of 10 percent on the net sports betting proceeds (amount wagered minus winnings) for casinos and internet sports betting operators contracted by casinos in the state. Despite the narrow margin, it is undeniable that voters find the new revenue streams offered by marijuana and sports betting appealing.

Sometimes Voters Say Enough is Enough

Washington voters certainly aren’t anti-tax, but it appears that the legislature’s adoption of $20 billion in new and increased taxes (revenues over a 10-year window) doesn’t sit well with them. Voters took advantage of the state’s “advisory vote” system, which allows the electorate to provide nonbinding recommendations to the legislature on whether to maintain or repeal major new laws, to repudiate many of the biggest tax increases the legislature has adopted.

Although voters gave their assent to the modest new tax on e-cigarettes and a surtax on international investment management services, they gave a thumbs-down to just about everything else: a new payroll tax to fund long-term care services, for instance; Business & Occupation tax surcharges on financial institutions, service industries, tour operators, timber products, and paint; a new petroleum tax; a graduated-rate real estate excise tax; and even remote sales tax authority. Clearly, Washington voters felt overtaxed, and with good reason.

The new laws they urged the legislature to reject are worth a combined $19.5 billion over the next decade.

Interestingly, for the most part, voters did not distinguish between taxes they would pay and taxes only paid by the highest earners or highest net worth individuals. True, they approved a tax on international investment management services, but 65 percent of them said no to a tax increase on the state’s largest corporations, 58 percent were opposed to higher taxes on financial institutions, and 67 percent came out against additional taxes on high-end homes. It’s true, of course, that advocacy campaigns are limited on nonbinding advisory votes and might have swayed some opinions, but it seems that Washington voters have reservations about policymakers’ rush to raise taxes.

These votes don’t tie lawmakers’ hands, but with results this stark, Washington elected officials might want to pay heed. Lawmakers thought they had a mandate to adopt sweeping tax increases. In light of Tuesday’s results, that conclusion is very much in doubt.

Conclusion

Few voters, of course, like tax increases. The typical voter wants to pay less in taxes and receive more government services because, well, who wouldn’t? But these votes also tell us something about voters’ priorities, and what taxes they are—and aren’t—willing to accept.

For a full list of election results, click here.

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