When “more information” misleads: Adding “public investment impact disclosures” to ballot titles would be a mistake.

The Washington Research Council recently assessed two bills that had escaped our attention. Both would add a new provision to some initiative ballot titles; the additional language, as the WRC points out, is neither necessary nor helpful. The WRC writes,

Two similar bills have been introduced that would require “public investment impact disclosures” in ballot titles for initiatives and referenda that make tax changes. The bills give the impression of transparency but would not provide meaningful context for voters.

As the Research Council notes, the state budget office already is required to provide a fiscal impact analysis.

The new bills purport to give more information as to how the proposal would impact the broader budget.

HB 1876 is scheduled for public hearing on Jan. 19. It would require the attorney general to prepare a “public investment impact disclosure” for any ballot measure that repeals, levies, or modifies any tax or fee. The disclosure would also be required for measures that are estimated to cause a net change in state tax revenue. The disclosure would be in the ballot title, in this format: “This measure would (increase or decrease) funding for (description of services).”

Similarly, SB 5850 would require the attorney general to prepare a “public services impact disclosure” for any ballot measure that repeals or changes any tax or fee—if there is a net decrease in state revenue. The disclosure would be worded like this: “This measure would reduce funding for (description of services).”

The description would be limited to 10-15 words. What’s wrong with this? A couple of things.

In general, such disclosures would not be useful for voters because not only do they not provide meaningful context but in many cases they would be giving false information.

There is no direct connection between a tax change in an initiative and the appropriation of state funds. Thus, it would be factually incorrect for a ballot title to state that a measure would cut education (for example)—unless the text of the initiative specifies that that would happen. In the event of a tax initiative passing, the Legislature may very well choose to balance the budget in another way.

Also, state revenues change for legislative and economic reasons. If the economy is growing, tax cuts could be made such that no services need to be cut. HB 1876 and SB 5850 do not account for that. Nor would the disclosures indicate the magnitude of the proposed tax change and the potential budget impact.

No need for this change. More at the WRC link above.