Our state budget is at the core of so many priorities that we advocate for as progressives, but we often steer clear of talking about it. One reason is that it’s difficult to make such a huge system interesting to the public. Another is that our tax code is complicated, and can seem the realm of experts to our audience. How can we communicate to our base about something difficult to understand and pedantic? How can we persuade those in the middle on a topic they simply don’t want to engage on?
But, despite these challenges, we have to talk about revenue. If we want great schools, roads, and all the other things that make a state a great place to live, then we need to be able to pay for them. In Washington, that means engaging in a dialogue with the public to build support for reforming our tax code.
For the past year and a half, Fuse has worked with progressive organizations like One America, Sound Alliance, the Spokane Alliance, and research firm Topos Partnership on an in-depth study of how Washingtonians view taxes and the role of government. Beyond polling, this research involved extensive techniques designed to give us a deeper understanding of the true thought processes of the public and their openness to change. These methods included elicitations, a media review, talkback testing, advisory groups, and many others.
The Communications Hub has compiled these findings into a messaging toolkit that details the methods, triggers, and essential elements of persuasive, productive communications on funding core priorities.
Washington’s tax code is the most regressive in America, meaning that those with the lowest incomes pay the highest tax rates while those at the top are taxed less. Working families often pay up to seven times more in taxes than the wealthiest in our state. The core of this system is our reliance on sales tax as a source of revenue.
But the tax breaks we grant to powerful interests also contribute to the problem. Powerful special interests with the resources and influence to manipulate the tax code come out ahead, and avoid paying their share. Currently, there are approximately 694 tax breaks written into to law in Washington. Many of these loopholes are decades old, and don’t have any sunset date. They’ve been repurposed and reutilized over the years in ways that were never intended when they were passed.
While the ethics of this system are obviously flawed, it’s also ineffective at generating the revenue our communities need to thrive. Tax breaks for powerful special interests are a part of this problem, but larger economic shifts are also contributing a system that hasn’t kept up with Washington’s growth. Since the mid-1900’s, our state’s economy has been slowly transitioning from a goods-based marketplace to one centered on services. This means that Washington consumers spend more of their money on paying for services, like having their haircut or their lawn mown, than on purchasing products, like hair clippers or lawn mowers. Since most services are not taxed at the same rate as goods in Washington, our tax code just isn’t delivering the revenue Washingtonians depends on.
We’re leaving money on the table. If Washington cleaned up tax breaks, updated our tax code, and addressed our upside down, regressive revenue system we have in our state, we’d have more resources to fund and invest in the priorities our communities need and deserve. Things like excellent schools, good roads, and emergency services we all count on and are foundations for a prosperous and thriving state and economy. For proof of this, we only have to look next door. We’d have significantly more revenue if we adopted the tax codes of either of our neighboring states: Oregon and Idaho. It may come as a shock to many of us in the progressive movement, but the conservative state of Idaho actually has a more progressive tax code than we do.
How did we get to this point? Part of the problem is the entrenched cultural common sense on revenue. Research shows that many Washingtonians are stuck in a “Taxpayer” mindset that makes it difficult to have a rational conversation about our revenue challenges and build public support for change. Most people believe that government is an “ineffective” and “wasteful” villain that “burdens” them with taxes. Rather than viewing taxation as a civic duty that is connected to positive investments in their communities, they see their taxes as money that is being taken from them and given to others, often to the detriment of the economy and average citizens.
Based on this belief, a natural conclusion is that taxes should be as low as possible. Washingtonians stuck in “Taxpayer” mode adopt a fatalistic, negative view about our state’s ability to craft a system that can deliver resources to our communities without being manipulated by powerful interests. They draw parallels between their household budget and state spending, urging the legislature to make “living within it’s means and not buying things we can’t afford” the highest priority, vs. investing in the foundations that make our communities and economy thrive.
The roots of this contemporary anti-tax mentality can clearly be seen in political rhetoric as far back as Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964, and even earlier. And, in a nation in which distrust in government has steadily risen over the past decade, Washingtonians are primed to accept the argument that government and taxes are wastes of money and the free market will solve all of our problems.
As negative as this mindset is, it’s also open to positive change. While researchers found the “Taxpayer” mentality was pervasive, most Washingtonians are not rigidly anti-tax. The research found that it was possible, even within the course of a single conversation, to shift individuals out of “Taxpayer” mode and into a more positive, “Civic” mode. In this mindset, respondents were able to see the link between revenue and thriving communities. They viewed revenue as supporting the economy and general prosperity of all of us.
In addition to connecting the dots between raising revenue and a thriving society, people in “Civic” mode also viewed reform as possible and a good first step at changing our tax system. They saw the connection between cleaning up tax breaks and generating more resources to make the investments in the foundations they want in their communities, such as excellent schools, good roads, and quality health care. And, they began to believe that by working together we can change the tax code to work better for all of us, not just those at the top.
How can that shift, from the anti-government narrative that’s been built over decades, be achieved?
The solution is long-term. It requires that we change the way we, as progressives, talk about revenue and the role of government. Past efforts to connect with voters have invoked a “redistribution” frame that emphasizes a problem that needs to be fixed (e.g. “We need for money for schools”) and calls upon wealthy interests to pay more. While effective with some of our base, this frame has been alienating to the general public. We need a new way of approaching funding, the role of government, and taxes.
The research shows that the core formula of this new narrative needs to link two existing stories: the Spending Story and the Revenue Story. Essentially, whenever we talk about spending to fund programs, we need to conscientiously link that spending to revenue. The truth is that we get what we pay for and you can’t get something for nothing. There is little potential for progress on many issues without revenue reform, and there is no achieving progressive change without the money to pay for the social and material investments our state needs. Every school, every road, and fire truck is bought and paid for with our state’s revenue.
When we make this connection, then every investment, every tax break, and even every source of revenue can be framed as a choice. We can have tax breaks for the powerful, or great schools, roads, and other foundations that benefit all of us.
Within this formula, it’s essential to achieve three things:
1. Feature accomplishments over needs. Instead of starting with the incredible needs or financial woes that our society faces, begin with the achievements we’ve made and the success we are capable of. Begin the conversation in a positive space to remind the audience that change is possible. For example, leading with the amazing strides that Washington has made in areas like technological innovation before moving onto how we can achieve similar success in areas like education, transportation, etc.
2. Highlight interdependence. We all benefit from the thriving communities that revenue makes possible. Instead of leading with the interest group that needs assistance or that will benefit from a specific program or policy, instead invoke how all of us experience the benefits. For example, instead of initially highlighting the needs of the homeless, lead with how affordable housing is a foundation of thriving communities, and is essential to keeping Washington the kind of place we want to live.
3. Promote revenue reform instead of “more taxes”. Research shows that most Americans do not think that the budget is thin, just that government wastes money. So, instead focus on reform for more revenue (e.g. “cleaning up our tax code”) stead of leading with the need for “more money”. For example, when talking about funding healthcare for children, communicate that “we’re leaving money on the table” that we could be better used to invest in excellent healthcare services in Washington State.
In addition to this core, there are also six necessary guidelines to building an understanding of revenue identified in the research.
- Focus on the common good: “public investments benefit us all.”
- Highlight the foundations of thriving communities, our prosperity. Examples: excellent schools, good roads, clean air and water, responsive police and safety services, etc.
- Connect the dots to what taxes pay for. We need to tie the need for resources to the tangible outcomes they fund.
- Lead with achievements and goals, then carry that general focus on what we aspire to achieve throughout.
- Focus on tax break reform, not the need for “more taxes”. We gain resources from making the choice to “clean up the tax code.”
- Manipulation, not wealth, is a source of tax breaks. It’s about power.
Together, these elements bring the audience into the narrative of taxes as investments in our communities. They build an understanding of a virtuous cycle, in which individuals and businesses pay taxes, our government invests these resources, and the results are the infrastructure and foundations that we all depend on.
However, we also have to be conscious of the common messages that trigger the public into a negative space around revenue. The conservative narrative on these issues has been built and repeated for decades, and it’s important to be aware of how little it can take to invoke those ideas in our audience, even when using messaging that may seem innocuous or even positive. Just as there are six necessary guidelines for success, there are also six triggers to avoid.
- Avoid a focus, at least initially, on a specific group of people. This can contribute to setting up an “us and them” dynamic in the audience’s minds, in which they feel like they’re being asked to give money to another group vs. investing in the public investments that benefit all of us.
- Don’t lead with problems and shortfalls. The public is triggered into a fatalistic and pessimistic mindset and tune out.
- Avoid messages that rely on people agree with vague, undefined assumptions about fairness. This value means different things to different people.
- Don’t focus on “happy talk” about government. It’s ok to be open to reasonable critique designed to improve government, vs. simply undermine it.
- Avoid running against government simply in order to connect with audiences on specific issues.
Now let’s see this in action. Look at the rephrasing of common revenue messages below to fit within this new frame.
|Instead of this…
|X is broken, or failing, etc.
||X is key to our quality of life/prosperity; if we want great X, we need to pay for it.
|Taxes pay for things we enjoy, such as parks.
||Thriving communities depend on things like...
|We don't have enough funding.
||We could accomplish more if we get rid of wasteful tax breaks...
|Parents want the best schools for their kids. (individual, consumer focus)
||We want great schools for our state. (collective benefits)
|Nobody likes taxes, but we need them.
||You can't get something for nothing. If we want X then we need revenue to pay for it.
|We need tax reform/more money.
||We lose millions in state revenue to tax breaks.
|Wealthy people should pay their fair share.
||Powerful interests should no longer be allowed to manipulate special tax breaks.
The biggest takeaway from this research, in my opinion, is that change is possible with the right tools. This messaging is one of those tools and we’re working with progressive organizations across the state to achieve change through grassroots organizing, policy development, and legislative advocacy. Altogether, this effort is the All In for Washington campaign.
Would you or your organization like to know more? Contact us directly to schedule a workshop, volunteer, or just ask a question.