Photo by KDavidClark

With each passing day, the proposed transportation package from the House Democrats is looking more and more like the Roads & Transit measure that failed in 2007.  Both may go down in history as unique proposals that united both pro-transit and pro-road forces in opposition.  Anti-tax forces haven’t been giving the package any love either– Monday’s Elway Poll made it clear that the general public isn’t interested in paying higher gas tax and car-tab fees.

While any opposition to such a highway-centric package sounds good, it’s important to not take away too much from the poll.  It’s a no-brainer that no one actually likes paying more taxes.  But if you associate a benefit to the cost of tax increases, people tend to have a stronger willingness to yield.  Of course, that depends on what those benefits actually are and how you frame the question.

Let’s take a look at the Elway’s poll question (.pdf).  The wording leads by outlining the package’s potential benefits, and asks the respondent to prioritize accordingly:

The legislature is looking at some potential transportation improvements. Of course, transportation projects are expensive and take a long time to complete. So the question is where to spend taxpayer dollars. I am going to read a list of projects that could be included in this package. As you think about the state transportation system over the next 10 years, tell me whether you think each project should be a Top priority for state government, a High priority, Low or a Not a priority for state government:

  • Expand major highways around the state to reduce commuter congestion and increase freight mobility
  • Provide money to the state ferry system to upgrade and maintain the system and keep fares down
  • Repair and maintenance of existing roads and bridges
  • Provide money to local mass transit systems

I think a lot of respondents would find this wording too vague.  By now, commuters are probably deaf to promises of congestion relief and most are in no good position to tell you about the State’s maintenance backlog or our local transit funding crisis.  It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what, in these four bullets, would be a tangible benefit that most voters could actually appreciate.

Moving on to the second part of the question:

As I said, transportation projects are expensive. The other part of the package will be how to pay for these improvements. No one likes to raise taxes, but as I read some funding options, tell me whether you would: Favor that proposal, be inclined to Accept it, be inclined to Oppose, or find it Unacceptable. I realize you don’t have all the details, but how are you inclined?

  • Increase the hazardous substance tax mostly paid by oil refineries on the state
  • A new tax on Bicycles that cost over $500
  • Allowing tolls on major roadways
  • An increase in the license tab tax

I’m not sure what Elway was trying to accomplish by concluding the survey with a question about cost, but I can see two things happening here.  Because respondents are essentially finishing the survey on a low note, they’ll likely have already forgotten about the benefits of the package and are instead left thinking about taxes and fees.  In other words, the poll’s wording makes very little association between cost and benefit, so no one’s really clear on what they would actually be paying for.

In defense of the transportation package, House Transportation Chair Judy Clibborn had this to say:

[Clibborn] noted Elway’s poll did not ask voters about specific projects that would be funded by the increase in taxes. ”If you put projects in you’d get a different answer,” she said.

While I’m at odds with Clibborn as to whether or not listing a bunch of highway projects will yield some sudden groundswell of support, she is correct that the framing of the poll’s wording can produce a sub-conscious bias.  It’s why polling on the same issue can often yield conflicting results.  If people are haunted by the cost of a transportation proposal, but not sold on the benefits, then they’ll almost certainly be driven to oppose it.

The 2008 Prop. 1 vote is a good example of messaging and framing that worked.  The measure had a high cost, but it was paired with a sizable benefit.  Voters approved ST2 because they wanted transit, and that’s exactly what the ballot measure promised (page 96 of the 2008 Voter’s Pamphlet).  Thanks to focused messaging and a simple map, voters could see with their own eyes what a 0.5% sales tax increase would pay for– a regional transit vision with lots of new light rail, commuter rail, and express bus service.

Once we have a transportation package that’s actually worth advocating for, the key is to focus on what voters want, and not what they’ll be paying.

55 Replies to “When it Comes to Polls, Framing is Everything”

      1. Oh, and of course Washington State should raise the gas tax to a level sufficient to actually pay for our road system. Our current system of funding roads is simply unsustainable.

      2. Hey, you’re both forgetting that “No one likes to raise taxes”. Oh wait, unless you see your roads crumbling, your bus system falling apart, your cities not catching up to the world in transit, and even your schools falling way behind in quality.

        I personally would love an income tax. And would settle for increased property tax if that’s all we could get.

      3. Well, I’d agree that an income tax is unlikely in this state no matter how justified it might be, but an increase in the gas tax will certainly happen, and will happen way before we get a per mile tax.

        And we will certainly see an increase in tolling — and thankfully so.

      4. I was reading an article on the Oregon Live Site about the Columbia CRC crossing and guess what someone commented on about taxes.
        “Oregon needs a sales tax to even out the revenue stream”. There’s no perfect tax system.

        I am against an state income tax, there is never going to be enough money in all the world to either do or build everything that needs to be built and or maintained. Plus, the states that have both sales and income taxes got hit with the recession as well and last I checked they are always broke and or running out of money.

        Only way for an income tax to get off the ground here is to abolish the sales tax entirely, both the state portion and all of the local option sales taxes as well.

        There’d be plenty of money in the gas tax to maintain infrastructure if the government raised the gas tax but didn’t immediately issue bonds on the pledged revenue which ties up the cash flow from the revenue for the next 30 years instead of being able to spend it each year where it’s needed.

      5. State Initiative, “The revenue source used to secure the issue of bonds for highway purposes must come from tolls” where “tolls” would include user fees such as ferry fares.

      6. State Initiative, “The revenue source used to secure the issue of bonds for highway purposes must come from tolls” where “tolls” would include user fees such as ferry fares.

        Tolls are even more regressive than sales taxes. How about an initiative to the effect that “the revenue source used to secure the issue of bonds for highway purposes must NEVER come from tolls”? That’d force us to come up with an equitable funding source. Perhaps an income tax. We need to pay for things somehow and tolls are a terrible way to do it.

      7. Some people want a state income tax because the sales tax is so boom-and-bust. Other people want a federal sales tax because of deficiencies in the income tax (I can’t remember what they are now). Sounds like the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

      8. Does a sales tax really fluctuate more than an income tax? It surely depends a lot on the specifics.

        California’s rather progressive income tax has notoriously large fluctuations, which is one reason California frequently has budget crises (others include constitutional tax restrictions, extreme political polarization, and generous state expenditures on popular programs). A less progressive income tax would be more stable.

        A sales tax that omits daily necessities like food and energy (I think food and gas are the two main things WA doesn’t collect sales tax on) should be less stable (and less income-regressive) than a flat sales tax but is it really less stable than a typical income tax?

      9. I will say this about the sales tax — Washington ends up having some of the most income-regressive taxes in the US, so if our implementation of sales tax is less stable than a flat income tax there’s really not much point in keeping things as they are, is there?

      10. Raising the state portion of the property tax would be a lot easier than passing an income tax. Not that raising any taxes on a statewide basis is “easy”.

      11. “Plus, the states that have both sales and income taxes got hit with the recession as well and last I checked they are always broke and or running out of money. ”

        No, we’re not. We’re known as the “rich states”.

      12. “others include constitutional tax restrictions,”

        Actually, this is the one and *only* reason California has so many budget crises. They didn’t happen before “proposition 13” in the 1970s.

        Never, ever, institute a supermajority requirement for raising taxes combined with an ordinary majority requirement to cut taxes. The one-way ratchet will kill you. That’s what happened in California. If they can maintain 2/3 Democratic majorities they may be able to run things for a while.

        (NY state’s budget “crises”, by contrast, are basically due to a shambolic legislature with “empty seat voting”, tyrannical majority leaders, massive gerrymandering, secrecy, and corruption. The actual budgeting is not a serious issue — the governor rarely has trouble designing a budget which most people are happy with — but the egos of the legislators are.)

    1. How The 1 Percent Property Tax Limit Works

      It limits increases in taxes by individual taxing districts to 1 percent annually. For example, if a city received $1 million in property taxes one year, it can only receive $1.01 million the next year, plus any tax revenues generated by new construction added to the tax rolls in the past year.

      http://dor.wa.gov/content/getaformorpublication/publicationbysubject/taxtopics/propertytax/onepercentqna.aspx

      Wow…so after two decades of extraordinary wealth growth raises are limited to one percent?!?

      And people ask why there is a problem??

      1. While that explanation is technically correct it isn’t the reality for the vast majority of property owners. From 2002 to 2012 my assessed value increased 63% with no new construction; same old 50 year old house. In the last 2 years the assessed value has dropped 3% but in that same time the total tax owed has increased 23%! How can that be when property taxes are limited to 1%? One reason is that it only applies to a small portion of the tax bill which has a dozen or so line items tacked on. But the main reason is the assessor continuously shifts the tax burdon from commercial, the big donor owners like Wallace, Wright Runstad, Kemper, et al, to individually owned residential property. That’s despite the fact that it’s the new commercial construction that has made the 1% rule irrelevant. A downtown hotel which is currently slated for demolition to build a new $LU tower has been asseseed at $1 for years, that’s one dollar, even though they’ve been renting rooms for hundreds of dollars a night. Meanwhile our structure, the house independent of the land has been assessed an increase of 95%.

      2. You know more about this than I do then.

        But from what little you’ve said, it seems to me we need to begin investigative hearings and initiate reform.

        We can’t keep nickle and diming and adding taxes willy nilly if the basic property tax structure is inherently unfair.

      3. The commercial bias doesn’t need any big investigative hearing. It’s all right out in the open and available on line for anyone that cares to look. The assessed value is reported and the sale value is in the public record. All you have to do is look at assessed value to sale price for commercial vs single family to see what’s been going on. We vote for county assessor but nobody seems to care.

      4. Part of the issue is that levies have a cap on income. The rates are usually lower when the good times are good because they’re getting their needed revenue take even though they have the right to take a higher rate. When the property values fall, the rate increases to the permitted maximum to maintain that revenue. We don’t approve rates, we approve overall revenue take with property taxes. And yeah, Bernie’s dead on that the burden is being shifted. On top of that, the Assessors across the state have implemented better valuation systems and more rigorously apply revaluations.

      5. WA collected $9 billion in prop tax in 2011

        That’s 2.5% of the State GDP. But property tax is only 19% of total State revenue. The State is pulling in 14% of GDP and then we’re paying local and federal taxes on top of that. It can be argued that property taxes should contribute a larger percentage and that would happen if all property was assessed at fair market value.

      6. Putting aside how assessments are done, the basic problem with it is that if inflation is more than 1% (and that is not “general inflation” but inflation in the goods and services that municipalities buy, like construction services and gasoline), the amount of revenue that is raised through property taxes will always be going down. That means either that government will provide less services or that other taxes will have to make up the difference. I know there are people who think the first alternative is a good one, but those people all complain that the pothole on their own street hasn’t been fixed and it took more than a minute for a cop to arrive when they made a noise complaint.

      7. basic problem with it is that if inflation is more than 1% … the amount of revenue that is raised through property taxes will always be going down.

        Absolutely totally wrong. You’re making the false assumtion that nothing gets built or improved. Every time a vacant lot gets built on the available property tax revenue for that parcel triples because improvements are not bound to the 1%. Plus the voter approved levies are not bound by the 1%. The idea is the new development which drives the need for new infrastructure should be paying the lions share. The political reality though is the increased valuation cap is being largely shifted to existing residential rate payers.

      8. “and that would happen if all property was assessed at fair market value.”
        It’s kind of embarassing that you don’t do that in Washington State.

        Where I live, well, we do assess all property at fair market value. There’s a collection of ridiculous and sleazy property tax breaks called “Empire Zones”, but they don’t mess with the *assessments*, they admit outright that they’re giving developers a kickback on property taxes.

      9. The 1% limit is less significant than it appears because it can be overridden by local referendum:

        [blockquote]Local taxing districts can propose that voters “lift” the 1 percent limit on annual levy increases so the district can collect a higher levy rate, up to the maximum rate for that jurisdiction[/blockquote]

        The jurisdictional statutory maximum rate is probably a bigger problem, actually.

      10. That explanation clears up a lot of questions. We see that the revenue, not the rate is capped, therefore, as houses became more expensive, tax assessments wouldn’t go up (unless voted for) because the total revenue intake from existing property could only increase by 1%. In fact, if assessed values went up considerably for a year, the tax rate would have to go down to limit the revenue increase to 1%. Consequently, that definition allows tax rates to be raised when property values go down to get back to the 101% of last year.

  1. The Elway Poll showed 70 percent of the voters, surveyed between Feb. 28 and March 2, rated the state’s transportation system as “satisfactory” or better.

    If 70% of the people are satisfied or happy with the state’s current transportation system it’s going to be hard to get the proposed package approved by the voters.

  2. I’m guessing a lot of these people who are rating the system as “satisfactory” live in areas outside the major cities—you know, the areas that pay a disproportionally low percentage of the cost of maintaining their satisfactory rural roads and highways.

    If we can’t raise gas taxes to a sufficient level and make it closer to real user fees, we need to seriously consider more closely chaining transportation spending to areas where the property tax revenue is raised. I hate the idea of leaving some areas to fend for themselves, but what’s happening is stupid. I would love to see a poll of state-wide voters asking a question like: “Highways and roads in rural areas are generally subsidized by gas tax money from the cities. Would you rather have the gas tax go up to pay for all the road repair needs throughout the state or would you prefer to have the state’s transportation dollars be spent proportionally in the geographic areas in which it was raised.”

    1. Stu,

      Your proposal appears eminently fair, but won’t happen until what people throughout the state believe happens: that King, Pierce and Snohomish counties form a cabal of selfish, lockstep legislators and commandeer Olympia.

      If that happened, there might some hope for legislation forcing transportation taxes to be used in the county of origin. But “lockstep” is pretty far from my mind when I think of the King County delegation. How about you?

      Also, it’s generally not considered “progressive” for legislators to be completely interested in only their own districts. Basically, those lockstep legislators would have to be a weird hybrid of socially liberal and green eyeshade conservative.

      1. “Basically, those lockstep legislators would have to be a weird hybrid of socially liberal and green eyeshade conservative.”

        It’s not as weird a political combo as you’d think. There’s an entire branch of environmentalism which is basically like this.

  3. First things first. Legislature should craft a comprehensive roadway maintenance and repair program (state and local) and fund it with an increase in the motor vehicle fuel tax (“gas tax”). And because its purpose would be to maintain existing infrastructure and not build new stuff, it should be passed by the Legislature without a vote of the people. Neglect of existing transportation infrastructure is approaching scandalous proportions, and there is no logical reason or excuse for it. And it doesn’t belong on the public ballot — voters have no “right” to vote in favor of bridges falling down.

    1. Unfortunately, when the legislature crafts that package, they’ll stick a million little (and big) things they want for their districts in it.

  4. Perceived cost and actual cost of driving is huge – and why it’s a heavy haul for transportation of any kind to get funded.
    Here’s a quick test you can do. http://commutesolutions.org/external/calc.html
    I plugged in a 15 mile RT commute and 15 miles of other driving per day.
    Of the roughly $1.00 in Total Cost of Driving per mile, only 1/3 is for fuel, maint, tolls, parking, etc. The rest is all fixed cost, that most of us barely consider.
    So a driver says, “Well, $5 bucks to drive to work every day or buy a $5 bus pass. I’ll drive”
    Solve the perception problem, and they’ll be standing in the isles.

  5. I would suggest that if we are going to pass new taxes for roadway construction, the priority should be a fix-it first policy. Replacement of structurally deficient bridges and improvements to pavement quality. People I know would like to see the current roads they commute on repaired and rehabilitated rather than new roads.

    People would agree to fix-it-first. I would have it go into a separate pool and have it go for projects such as bridge-replacements (probably not the CRC or 520) I-5 rebuilding for better pavement, etc.

    1. That’s exactly what should happen. But you’ll note Clibborn’s bill devotes very little to maintenance, upkeep and repair, and close to half the total to new projects.

  6. Thank you for calling out the bad polling techniques used by Elway! The poll’s cumulative bias is insidious. For example, the types of tax increases were not quantified. Opposition to any of the tax increases (especially for gasoline tax increases) might be different if the research said “.. expecting to cost the average driver $50 a year for his or her vehicle.” to put it into perspective. It’s like asking “Should we buy this?” without saying how much it costs! Finally, a generic question on the “transportation system” conjures up questions about accessibility, not condition; perhaps it should have said “the condition of the transportation system”.

    1. I agree. Roads “reduce commuter congestion and increase freight mobility” but transit systems don’t do that? Ridiculous.

      Furthermore, there is nothing about how much money each proposal would raise. A bike tax would bring in a very, very small amount of money, especially when you consider the additional paperwork. The net money raised would be a pittance. On the other hand, we could pay for everything by just raising the gas tax, but that isn’t even on the poll! Ridiculous.

  7. I think that pro-road people were probably pretty keen on roads and transit back in 2007. I think the suggestion that pro-transit people are anti roads and vice versa is largely false. The reason it lost was because of the anti-transit and anti-road opposition, not because of the pro crowds.

    1. Na, the very reason that it was “Roads+Transit” instead of just “Roads” was that the authors of the bill knew that a Roads only package would fail statewide. Yes, a lot of the state wants more roads, but they are highly tax averse and don’t want to raise the taxes required to actually pay for what they use.

      So they tacked on “Transit” to a Roads package to appeal to the less tax adverse Seattle voter – the intent being to get enough Seattle votes to overcome the anti-tax “no” votes. But to Seattle’s credit, the average Seattleite saw through this ploy and had the courage to vote “no” anyhow (even though they were told this was the only chance for transit).

      And what was the outcome? R+T failed and ST2 was conceived and passed.

      So if the state legislature tried to buy Seattle votes again by taking transit onto a predominately roads-only package, then we should vote no again. Because history shows that we will get another opportunity to vote for just “Transit”.

      If the roads people want more money for roads, then they should raise the gas tax or institute tolls.

      1. Yes, what you’ve said and what I said are the same thing. The people who wanted transit but didn’t want roads voted against it, and the people who didn’t want transit also voted against it.

        Both may go down in history as unique proposals that united both pro-transit and pro-road forces in opposition.

        This is what I was saying wasn’t true. The pro-road and pro-transit groups have a lot of overlap, especially for the campaign donations. Put another way, pro-road != anti-transit, and pro-transit != anti-roads.

  8. There is a lot of bias built into those poll questions. “Of course, transportation projects are expensive”? Says who? Compared to what? Isn’t “expensive” a value judgment? There is no “of course” about it!

    Anything takes a certain amount of resources to do. That doesn’t make it “expensive” automatically. Getting up in the morning and getting dressed takes much more energy and expenditure than lying in bed all day. Does that mean that getting up and being a functioning member of society is “expensive”? Maybe it’s not “expensive”, just necessary.

    Building a rail line or fixing a bridge costs some amount of money. But maybe it’s not “expensive”, maybe it’s cheap. Compared to not being able to move people and goods, or losing lives when the bridge collapses? It could be quite a good deal, actually.

    And I also object to the way the question starts by talking about “transportation improvements”, but the last two items aren’t really improvements, merely sustaining the infrastructure we already have.

    So, allocating any kind of resources to something is automatically “expensive”, and keeping what we have from crumbling down around us is “improvements”.

    Bah.

    1. “Does that mean that getting up and being a functioning member of society is “expensive”?”

      Absolutely. But we have to consider the cost of *not* getting up and being a functioning member of society. :wink: (Why does this sound like the typical argument trying to convince people that we need to invest in rail?)

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