Behind the legal kerfluffle over Initiative 1053 lies a political paradox.
The initiative, which forbids the Legislature to raise taxes without a two-thirds majority, was struck down Wednesday in King County Superior Court. Judge Bruce E. Heller said it violated language in the Washington Constitution calling for a simple majority on tax measures; this, he said, implicitly bars a requirement for anything more than a simple majority.
That’s an intriguing argument, and it’s easy to envision the state Supreme Court – dominated by Democrats – agreeing with him.
Which gets us to the political paradox.
Many Democrats wouldn’t mind ratcheting up taxes a bit.
For sure, they’d prefer to exact any new taxes from the wealthy classes and from corporations. But there’s no way to accomplish some of their legislative priorities – more funding for public education and health care, and paycheck protection for state employees and teachers – without more revenues.
For Republicans, the reverse is true. Most are hostile to new taxes, don’t mind squeezing government, and don’t fret about the care and feeding of public unions.
The philosophic divide between the parties is clear. Not so clear is the collective philosophy of the voters.
The state, once purple, has grown increasingly blue as Washingtonians have elected Democratic governors and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Given the candidates they elect, you’d think the voters would buy into Democrats’ yearnings for a more generous – and more generously funded – state government.
Not so. The electorate much prefers the Republican approach to taxes.
Given an opportunity to restrict state spending by initiative, they do it every time, by immense margins. Given the chance to slap an income tax on the rich in 2010, they killed Initiative 1098 by almost two to one – electoral obliteration of nuclear magnitude. Lots of people who’d voted Democrat on candidates turned around and voted Republican on taxes.
One theory about those seemingly conflicted voters is that they kind of agree with Democrats’ policy goals; they just don’t want to spend a penny on them. Hence their approval of expensive class size and teacher pay initiatives in 2000 – and their refusal to approve new money for them.
The two-thirds requirement that Heller struck down has been on the books since 1995. Democrats and Republicans have both used it for political cover. If the Supreme Court throws it out, Washingtonians will face a hard choice: Either keep on electing Democratic majorities who’d have a much easier time raising the hated taxes, or start electing Republicans majorities who want a far more austere government.
Voters wouldn’t be able to have it both ways anymore. But the state might finally get a Legislature whose financial means are lined up with its policy ends.