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Ballot Measures Part 1: Affordable Housing Taxes, Revenue Measures, and Low Voter Turnout

Ballot Measures Part 1: Affordable Housing Taxes, Revenue Measures, and Low Voter Turnout

It’s that time of year again – the general election! Here at MRSC we’ve been tracking all local ballot measures (except school districts) since 2011 in our Local Ballot Measure Database. We also made a number of significant improvements to the user interface this year, so take a look!

I’ll be updating the database with all 130 or so ballot measures once the counties certify the results on November 28. In the meantime, the votes are still being counted, but here’s a quick recap of some of the issues I’ve been tracking.

I’ll focus on funding measures in this post, with a follow-up piece on the other, non-funding issues.

Affordable Housing: City Sales Tax Passes, County Levy Fails

Ellensburg easily approved an affordable housing sales tax, the first jurisdiction in the state to attempt such a measure. The city has been struggling with extremely low rental vacancy rates and rising costs.

This funding mechanism was first authorized by the 2015 legislature. For the first two years, only counties could submit this tax to voters. But no county imposed the sales tax by October 9 so this funding option is now open to any city or town outside of King County.

In King County, the deadline is one year later (October 9, 2018). If King County has not imposed an affordable housing sales tax by then, any city or town within the county may submit a sales tax to voters.

Meanwhile, an affordable housing levy in Jefferson County was soundly defeated. Based on precinct-level data, the measure is losing pretty much everywhere in the county, although it’s faring better in Port Townsend than in the unincorporated areas. The measure would have combined an affordable housing levy (which may only be used for “very low-income” populations making under 50% of the median income) with a levy lid lift for low-income populations making up to 80% of the median income. Similar measures have been passed by Bellingham and Vancouver in recent years.

For more information about affordable housing sales taxes and levies, see our page on Affordable Housing.

TBD Sales Taxes Mostly Passing

Voters in Long Beach and Connell have approved transportation benefit district sales taxes. TBD sales taxes are also leading narrowly in Moses Lake and Mukilteo. Another TBD sales tax measure is narrowly trailing in Woodland for the second time in as many years.

Historically, TBD sales taxes have been quite popular; according to our database over 80% have passed over the last five years. For more information, see our page on Transportation Benefit Districts.

Pacific County Rejects Second Quarter REET

Voters in Pacific County decisively rejected the "second quarter percent” real estate excise tax. This tax may be imposed by any city and county planning under the Growth Management Act, but there’s a catch: jurisdictions that are required to plan under the GMA may impose the tax legislatively, but jurisdictions that voluntarily plan under the GMA must submit the tax to voters.

Pacific County, which opted in to the GMA, initially imposed the tax without a public vote. After realizing its mistake, the county stopped collecting the extra quarter percent, refunded the money (none of which had been spent), and submitted this ballot measure to voters.

For more information on REET, see our Real Estate Excise Tax page.

Mixed Results for Other County Taxes

In Clallam County, voters easily approved a sales tax for the county juvenile facility, the only one in the state offering drug, mental health, and family counseling to children. Right now, the facility is primarily funded through the general fund, but this measure will create a dedicated fund.

A sales tax for juvenile detention facilities and the county jail is also passing in Okanogan County, but in Whatcom County a sales tax for new jail facilities and services failed, following the failure of a similar measure two years ago.

Voters approved a levy lid lift in King County for veterans’ services, seniors, and homeless and vulnerable populations, while voters in Mason County decisively rejected a lid lift for criminal justice, public safety, and general fund services. Mason County has already been struggling with budget issues and the levy failure will likely mean more budget cuts next year.

Columbia County passed a sales tax for its emergency communications network, but in Adams County a levy lid lift for the county road fund was soundly rejected.

Voter Turnout a Problem for Many Measures

Low turnout has posed a problem for a number of measures this year. Some funding mechanisms, such as bonds and certain levies, must get 60% of the vote and meet minimum validation (turnout) requirements.

For bonds, turnout must be at least 40% of the most recent general election. For some other measures, turnout must be at least 40% of the most recent general election or the number of yes votes must be at least 24% of the number of voters in the most recent general election (meaning the measure can pass with less than 40% turnout but the required “yes” percentage starts climbing above 60%).

Normally, validation is not much of an issue but it can be problematic in years like 2017 immediately following high-turnout presidential elections.

For instance, 68% of voters in Mountlake Terrace are approving a $12.5 million bond measure for a new city hall and expanded police station. However, the measure requires turnout of over 4,000 and it’s well short of that right now.

Voters in Lacey Fire District No. 3 are overwhelmingly approving a $20 million bond measure for new and improved fire facilities, but the measure requires about 17,000 voters to pass and, as I write this, it’s about 1,000 short (although it might still make up the difference).

In Pullman, two separate bond measures – one for park improvements and the other for a wide variety of public facilities including a fire station, event center, and city administrative offices – both have over 60% approval but turnout is falling short.

And in Castle Rock, an excess levy for library operations appears likely to pass, after the same measure just barely failed to meet the validation requirements in the August primary. Voter turnout has not hit 40%, but the measure has almost 70% support and looks likely to get the required number of “yes” votes.

Validation should be much easier next year since the 2018 elections will be using the 2017 general election – this one – as the baseline for voter turnout. But watch out in 2021!

Anything Else?

Are there any other funding measures you’ve been following that I should pay attention to? Any other measures falling short of their validation requirements? Leave a comment below or email me at

If you have questions about ballot measures or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772.

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.

Photo of Steve Hawley

About Steve Hawley

Steve joined MRSC in July 2014 and is responsible for writing, editing, and conducting research for many of MRSC’s website resources, with a particular focus on local government finance, budgeting, ballot measures, and procurement. He has a broad communications and public policy background with over a decade of local government and nonprofit experience.