Voter-Approved Tax Measures: Five Years of Washington State Trends
Since 2011, MRSC has been tracking what happens when Washington local governments seek voter approval of tax measures through our online Local Ballot Measure Database. With over 1,200 local ballot measures now in the database, we’re gaining insight into voting trends and what makes a ballot measure successful.
In the graph below we've used four years of data, from 2012-2016. What the data show is clear: Local governments in Washington consistently use ballot measures to fund local services.
Why are local governments turning to voter approval of tax increases? At one time, local governments most often turned to the voters for approval to fund enhancements in service. Since 2001, when Washington State instituted the annual limit of a 1% increase in the property tax levy, local governments have found it more difficult to keep up with inflation. In turn, cities and counties are going to the voters more frequently to fund basic services.
Voter Support of Funding Measures
How have voters responded to the increased number of funding measures? In general, positively, provided those measures clearly communicate the need for additional funding. Over 75% of the city and county tax measures on the ballot since 2011 have been approved. While property tax measures (78.1% approval) have had a slightly higher success rate than sales tax measures (74.5% approval), voters have been largely supportive of both these types of funding requests.
There are some interesting trends within that overall success rate. Measures that are very specific about what will be funded fare far better than a more general funding request. Measures that simply fund general government operations and maintenance or that replenish general fund reserves rarely succeed.
The graph below compares the success or failure of emergency medical service (EMS), criminal justice, and transportation measures from 2011-present. Of the 222 total EMS measures, 88% have succeeded while 54 criminal justice measures hover around a 60% success rate. Transportation measures (95 total) performed consistently with the average 75% ballot measure success rate.
The Limits of Voter Support
The data show there are also limits to voter support for local funding measures. Voters are most skeptical of measures that authorize significant, non-voted taxing capacity or that create a new level of government. A look at the success rate of different types of parks funding measures helps to illustrate some of the barriers to success.
Since 2011, Washington cities and counties have placed a total of 50 parks-related measures on the ballot, including levy lid lifts, bonds, and metropolitan parks districts, with an overall success rate of 52%. Of note: the type of funding mechanism mattered in terms of success. The graph below compares the success or failure of different types of parks measures.
The levy lid lift (19 total measures), which increases the property tax rate either permanently or for a fixed period of time, has about the same rate of success as the average funding measure, with 73.7% approval. Voted bond measures (20 total), which require a 60% yes vote for approval and are restricted to capital improvements, have garnered only a 45% success rate. Metropolitan Park District (MPD) measures (11 total), which create a separate authority that can authorize a levy of up to $ 0.75 per $1,000 of assessed value, have had a 27.2% success rate. Local governments proposing an MPD have the burden of showing the voters that the MPD Board will be good stewards of the public trust as it relates to the use of their significant taxing authority.
Using the Local Ballot Measure Database
The most significant factor in whether a local ballot measure will succeed hasn’t changed over time. When there is organized opposition to a measure, its chances of success diminish significantly. Of course, it’s not always easy to predict whether and where opposition will arise. Careful analysis, using the Local Ballot Measure Database, when paired with an understanding of the level of voter trust in the governing body can provide a good foundation for determining the likelihood of a measure's success.
You can search the database by jurisdiction, by funding mechanism, topic, or keyword to hone in on the results you are seeking. You can also download an Excel spreadsheet of the results that will give you more information on the amount and duration of the funding measure.
We’ll be continuing to update the ballot measure database and will report on new trends in types of ballot measures. In the meantime, check out the Local Ballot Measure Database and give us feedback on how well it works.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.