Pierce County voters will decide next month whether to increase the number of “yes” votes required for the County Council to approve new taxes.
Former state Rep. Gigi Talcott said the charter amendment, which would require a “supermajority” of five votes on the seven-member council instead of the current four, is needed to control spending.
“I think people are starting to say it’s time to limit the growth of government,” said Talcott, a Tacoma Republican. “This is one way to do it.”
But County Councilman Rick Talbert is personally opposed to the measure and says the term “supermajority” is a misnomer.
“I think it creates a ‘super-minority,’” the Tacoma Democrat said. “Three people can call the shots.”
Under a supermajority, three no votes – a minority of the seven council members – can defeat a proposal instead of a simple majority of four votes.
If approved by a simple majority of voters, the charter amendment will take effect Jan. 2.
Washington voters already have installed a supermajority vote in the Legislature to raise state taxes. The state Supreme Court is weighing the case of a lawsuit that contends the two-thirds vote requirement is unconstitutional. Initiative promoter Tim Eyman has put the requirement on the ballot again in November.
County Council attorney Susan Long said the state and county situations are different. One is about the county charter and a vote of the council on taxes it has authority to impose. The other is about the state constitution and a public vote.
“When the Supreme Court rules on that,” Long said, “it won’t affect what the county currently has on the ballot.”
County Councilman Roger Bush, the Frederickson Republican who first set out to limit the council’s taxing authority this year, has acknowledged the council hasn’t approved new taxes during his nearly eight years in county office.
But some on the council have expressed concern that the Legislature will cut funding for county programs, then give the council taxing authority to make up the loss.
Talcott said requiring a supermajority will deter the Legislature from doing that kind of cost-shifting.
“They’re going to be less likely to pull the rug out from public safety,” she said. “Legislators know it’s a higher hurdle to get a supermajority.”
Talcott also said the supermajority requirement could motivate Democrats and Republicans on the council to work together, unless one party already has five members who agree. (There are currently five Republicans on the council.)
There’s been no active campaign or fundraising for or against the measure, officially called Charter Amendment No. 40. A few public forums are scheduled.
Talcott, who represented the 28th District from 1993 to 2007, helped write the voters’ pamphlet statement supporting the amendment.
The voters’ pamphlet has no statement against the measure.
One person, Andrew Bacon, volunteered to write the against statement. But he refused to permit his statement to be printed after he exceeded the word limit and the auditor’s office trimmed it, said Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson.
In an email, Bacon gave a short explanation for why his statement didn’t appear. “I didn’t make the deadline,” he said.
In May, the County Council voted 5-2 along party lines to put the measure on the Nov. 6 ballot. Council members Talbert and Tim Farrell, both Tacoma Democrats, voted no.
Talbert wanted the issue referred to a charter review commission.
The council sent the measure to voters after revising Bush’s proposed charter amendment requiring that voters approve any new county tax.
Farrell suggested shifting that proposed authority from voters to a council supermajority. He noted that the council could be vulnerable to a lawsuit if it referred to voters a new tax that the state had given the council authority to adopt.
The council amended Farrell’s proposal so that the supermajority requirement would apply to two taxes the council currently has authority to levy but hasn’t. Both are sales tax increases: two-tenths of 1 percent for public safety and one-tenth of 1 percent for mental health services.
Farrell said he couldn’t support the final version including the mental health tax increase.
The supermajority requirement would apply only to taxes the council has authority to levy. Some tax increases, such as the sales tax hike for South Sound 911 adopted last fall, require voter firstname.lastname@example.org