Lawmakers to Voters: Raise Your Own Taxes

Sidestepping a prickly political issue, lawmakers in some cash-starved states are asking voters to decide for themselves whether a tax increase is in order.

"Most legislators would prefer to avoid the [tax] issue," said Dane Waters, executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that tracks ballot questions.

One way to do this, short of not raising taxes at all, is to pass the issue and the political buck back to voters. Lawmakers in Oregon, Washington, Arizona and Virginia have done just that by placing proposed tax increases on the ballot.

In Oregon, legislators meeting this month in an emergency session, called for a special election next January so Oregonians can vote on a proposed income tax increase.

"The courageous thing to do would have been to vote it up or down," said Tom Towslee, spokesman for Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), when asked whether the governor would have preferred that lawmakers consider the tax increase themselves.

But since this is a major election year, Towslee said, few legislators could be counted on to vote for a tax increase.

"We know that there are not enough people in the legislature to do a straight up and down vote in an election year," he said.

If approved by voters, the increase would raise an additional $312 million, forestalling some of this year's program cuts brought on by the slumping economy and shrinking tax revenues.

Towslee admits the battle to get voters to raise their own taxes is an uphill one. Still, he expects that they will favor a tax increase over the alternatives.

"If this tax measure doesn't pass, there will be more than $310 million dollars in cuts that will devastate public education, lay off state troopers and close prisons, and put the elderly and infirm out into the street," he said. "So it's a pretty clear choice for Oregonians."

This wouldn't be the first time Oregon voters raised their own taxes. Earlier this month, they approved a 60-cent increase in the cigarette tax, which will provide $67.3 million to offset reductions made in the state's health plan for low-income people.

In Washington, after weeks of wrestling with proposed fuel and sales tax increases to fund transportation projects, state legislators sent the proposal to the November ballot to be weighed by voters.

The tax and transportation proposal Referendum 51 has bipartisan support, notably former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton (R) and Gov. Gary Locke (D).

"Referendum 51 is not a hard choice. It's the only choice," said Locke in a Sept. 26 speech to business leaders.

The referendum is opposed by an unlikely coalition of groups, pairing anti-growth and alternative transportation activists with small government stalwarts.

Earlier this year in Arizona, lawmakers referred a proposed cigarette tax increase to the November ballot.

If passed, Arizona's cigarette tax would increase from 58 cents per pack to $1.18 per pack, raising more than $150.9 million in revenue for the state.

And in Virginia, voters in two traffic-clogged regions Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads will consider sales tax increases to fund transportation improvements.

State lawmakers placed the taxes on the ballot after rejecting similar requests from Northern Virginia lawmakers the past two years.

If enacted, the sales tax increases would raise more than $10 billion for transportation projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Gov. Mark Warner (D) is campaigning in the two regions in support of the tax.

Missourians will also consider a tax increase. Only there, the increase was placed on the ballot by a citizens group, and not lawmakers.

The ballot proposal would increase the cigarette tax by 55 cents, from 17 cents per pack to 72 cents per pack, and would also increase by 20 percent the tax on other forms of tobacco, raising $342.6 million for health and other programs.

In August, Missouri voters soundly rejected a proposal that would have raised $500 million annually for transportation projects through higher sales and motor vehicle taxes, with 72 percent of voters rejecting the tax increases.