Initiative would force you to pay for political speech you disagree with

Americans have a hang-up about being compelled to do things. It’s in our DNA. For instance, we have freedom of religion written into our constitution, but also freedom not to participate in any religion. The right not to be compelled to house soldiers was important enough that the Framers spelled it out in the Bill of Rights.

Americans also have the freedom to participate or not in the political process. Unlike some countries such as Australia, there is no compulsory voting in the USA. If you choose not to vote, there’s no fine. No government official comes to chastise you. Even the $3 for presidential campaigns on your income tax return requires an affirmative answer. If you don’t check the box, the campaigns don’t get your 3 bucks.

That aversion to compelled thought, speech, and action is largely the reason we have the campaign finance system (or really, lack of much of a system) we have today. Just as some choose to vote and some do not, some choose to give candidates and volunteer on campaigns and some do not.

That’s the crux of my problem with a new initiative that will likely be on your ballot this fall. I-1464 would allow every Washington resident to give up to three $50 “democracy credits” to the legislative candidates (or just one candidate) of their choice. The intent is that in the future, people wouldn’t be limited to donating only to legislative campaigns.

Let’s be clear: by using tax dollars to fund political donations, this initiative will mean your money will go to fund campaigns you don’t agree with. That is compelled speech and compelled participation. I like how Bryan Myrick put it: the initiative means “using one person’s money to pay for another person’s political speech”. Exactly.

That simply cuts against our American disinclination to being forced to participate, let alone forced to fund political speech we disagree with. The pro campaign stresses that it’s all “voluntary,” but it isn’t. Using the program to give to campaigns is voluntary, yes. What’s not voluntary is giving your tax money to someone else so they can spend it on politics. If you pay sales tax in Washington, your participation in this program is not voluntary, it’s mandatory.

Tax source has problems too
I’ll credit the initiative’s drafters on one point: they identified a tax source for the new spending. Many initiatives mandate new spending but don’t identify a source to cover the cost.

Still, the chosen source is less than ideal. The initiative would end the out-of-state sales tax exemption. That exemption is critical for businesses located near the Oregon state line. The exemption helps keep them competitive in attracting Oregon shoppers, who pay no sales tax on their side of the border.

It’s a sensible policy that means Oregon shoppers don’t choose to forego purchases in Washington and instead wait to make the same purchase in Oregon to save on the tax. For many businesses, it’s critically important:

[Longview jeweler Bob] Crisman estimates that at least half of his Oregon business would evaporate if the measure passes, and Cowlitz County businesses say I-1464 could cost them thousands of dollars in lost sales.

“That’s going to cost jobs. Period,” he said.

Don’t be fooled by the idea that the tax to pay for these democracy credits will be borne by out-of-state shoppers, not you. All sales tax revenues go to the general fund and the political donations program will be paid out of the general fund. It will be your money that goes out the door to candidates’ bank accounts. The out-of-state exemption is just the accounting device used to keep the budget in balance.

This initiative would hurt Washington businesses, especially those in Clark, Cowlitz, and King County (which isn’t a border county but is a common destination for Oregon shoppers). And regardless of those concerns, there’s no getting around the fact that I-1464 means compelled political speech and participation.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.
  • derylmccarty

    And beyond the constitutional free speech versus forced speech argument there is the consideration that the current private campaign contribution system is politically a “first primary”. I.e., if you can convince your relatives, friends and neighbors that your candidacy fits in the area where you live and that your skills, temperament and background are right for that job they give a bit of their time, talent and treasure – even if its only $5 or $10 – you have crossed a threshold where a candidacy is considered viable. And this is way before the TNT or the ST picks you up on their radar or even before filing. If you can’t even get your friends and neighbors to contribute, perhaps you ought to stick with your day job. But that would disappear if everyone got the same money from the General Fund. Our ballots would fill up with temperamentally inappropriate, single-issue candidates all with my money to spend. Not cool.

  • SouthernRoots

    So, with the “source” of funding for this initiative being removing the out of state sales tax exemption, the public funding for Washington elections would be “paid for” by Oregonians?
    A little too creative.
    Impose the soon to be 10% sales tax on Oregonians and a 10% sale in Oregon will be 20% savings over the Washington price, encouraging the Oregonian to stay home with their dollars.
    Brilliant.