The Opportunity for Olympia initiative — which would create a public college fund that’s paid by an income tax on the city of Olympia’s wealthiest households — continues to test legal boundaries on its way to the Nov. 8 election.
This week, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Anne Hirsch ordered a revision to the initiative’s written summary in response to an appeal by Opportunity for Olympia, the group behind the initiative. She ruled to strike the words “income tax” from the ballot measure.
The city submitted the ballot title last week, but drew an immediate challenge over the summary’s language, which introduced Proposition 1 as “the establishment of a 1.5 percent income tax within the city.”
Attorneys for Opportunity for Olympia said the ballot title’s description “creates prejudice against the measure” because it refers to an income tax before saying that it would create and fund a college grant program.
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Under the proposal, that college fund that would be funded by a new 1.5 percent tax on all household income within city limits that exceeds $200,000 a year. The initiative received enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.
One person who has been following the Opportunity for Olympia process is state initiative guru Tim Eyman, who told The Olympian that in all his legal battles, he has never seen such an item go to the ballot without any kind of council or legislative vote.
That vote would have come from the Olympia City Council, which has opposed the initiative because of the costly legal challenge that would follow if voters approve the unprecedented proposal for an income tax, which is prohibited in Washington state. Despite being required by law to send the initiative to the ballot, the council chose not to act at all, which forced the matter into court.
Attorneys from both sides have been fighting over whether Proposition 1 should go before voters. A judge ruled Aug. 24 that the initiative is invalid and beyond the city’s taxing powers, but an appellate court officer issued a stay in the case, ordering that the measure appear on the ballot, regardless of the proposal’s legality.
“It’s almost like they’re making up rules as they go,” Eyman said.
Eyman said he watches the pass-fail margins on Election Day to gauge an initiative’s political impact. Olympia’s initiative could have a powerful lobbying effect statewide if it passes by a wide margin, he said, noting that the outcome could motivate lawmakers to find a legal alternative.
“The initiative process isn’t really about creating a law,” Eyman said. “It’s about lobbying your public officials to get what you want.”
A conservative Olympia-based think tank called The Freedom Foundation already has vowed to challenge the initiative’s constitutionality in court if it passes. Another legal battle brewing over the proposal includes one from Opportunity for Olympia’s attorneys, who have threatened a lawsuit alleging that the city of Olympia has violated state campaign laws by using public money to oppose the initiative. The city argues that the expenditures were made to defend its official actions.
Ballot language: Before and after
The city’s ballot title for Proposition 1 originally stated: “Initiative measure No. 1 concerns establishment of a 1.5 percent annual income tax within the city. This measure would impose within the City of Olympia an annual tax on adjusted gross income of household income exceeding $200,000; tax proceeds, after administrative expenses, would be available to provide all or part of the cost of one year of community college tuition, or an equivalent sum to attend public universities, community colleges or technical colleges in the state, to city residents graduated from public high school or with a GED.”
The revised ballot title for Proposition 1 now reads: “Initiative measure No. 1 concerns establishing and funding a college grant program. This measure would establish a City of Olympia college grant program. City residents who graduate from public high school or receive a GED could receive grants for at least one year of commuinty college tuition, or an equivalent sum to attend public colleges and universities in Washington. Grants would be funded by a 1.5 percent tax on household income above $200,000 and also may be privately funded. Administrative expenses would be capped at 5 percent.”