Let voters decide on supermajority for tax increases

February 4, 2014 

Last February, the Washington Supreme Court in a 6-3 ruling overturned the five-time voter-approved requirement that tax increases receive a supermajority vote of the Legislature or voter approval.

In the past, when the court has invalidated a law passed by the people, the Legislature has sought to implement what the people want; Initiative 695 reducing car tab costs and Initiative 747 limiting property tax increases are recent examples.

In response to the court’s ruling, some lawmakers have introduced SJR 8213, a measure to amend the state constitution to require a two-thirds majority vote of the Legislature to raise taxes. This proposed constitutional amendment would allow voters, for the sixth time, to consider this taxpayer-protection policy and, if they choose, to place the requirement into the state’s constitution.

Tax limitation is popular. Voters in Washington have enacted or affirmed the two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases five times during the past 20 years with the most recent time being in 2012, when 64 percent of voters approved I-1185.

Prior to the court’s ruling, 18 states (counting Washington) had some form of supermajority vote requirement for tax increases. These 18 include several other Western states, such as California, Arizona and neighboring Oregon. Of the states with supermajority tax limitations, only the requirements in Washington and Wisconsin were ordinary law. The requirements in all other the states are part of the state constitution.

There are nearly two-dozen supermajority requirements currently in Washington’s Constitution. These provisions have been placed there to require a high vote threshold for certain government actions. These restrictions appear to be policy choices. Several of these provisions have been part of Washington’s constitution since its ratification in 1889.

The most recent supermajority restriction was added by lawmakers and voters in 2007 with the requirement for a three-fifths legislative vote to access funds in the budget stabilization account. It is clear that supermajority vote requirements are not undemocratic. In most cases they are not even controversial.

Based on the numerous supermajority vote restrictions currently in Washington’s constitution, letting voters consider a constitutional supermajority restriction to raise tax would not be embracing undemocratic principles. Instead it would be following the existing constitutional precedents for requiring higher vote thresholds for certain government actions.

Although the state Supreme Court struck down Washington’s decades-old statutory supermajority for taxes requirement, the justices were clear that they were not ruling on the “wisdom” of the policy itself, and instead that ultimately the people should decide, writing: “Should the people and the Legislature still wish to require a supermajority vote, they should do so through a constitutional amendment.”

SJR 8213 would allow the Legislature and people to make this decision. Its text reflects the policies from the prior five voter-approved initiatives requiring a supermajority vote or voter approval to raise taxes.

For the past 20 years, voters have consistently said they want their lawmakers to reach a broad consensus on the need to raise taxes or to include the voters directly in the decision. Although the Supreme Court invalidated this taxpayer protection as ordinary law, its ruling did not negate the fact that on five separate occasions the voters have demanded this requirement, most recently with statewide passage of I-1185 with a 64 percent vote and approval in 44 of the state’s 49 legislative districts.

In fact, the tax limitation received more votes in 2012 than either President Obama or Gov. Jay Inslee. Allowing the people to vote on a constitutional amendment would be representative of the public would help end this debate once and for all.

Jason Mercier is Washington Policy Center’s director of the Center for Government Reform.

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