Politics & Government

Senate Republicans pass two-thirds rule on first day of session

Republicans in the state Senate opened the 2015 legislative session Monday by making it harder to pass taxes in the Legislature’s upper chamber, potentially presenting a challenge to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s idea to tax carbon pollution and capital gains.

The Senate approved a rule change Monday that will require a two-thirds vote of that chamber to approve any new taxes, unless the tax measure is sent to voters for final approval.

The procedural move by Republicans on Monday foreshadows the political battle that lies ahead in the Legislature this year over Democrats’ push to raise taxes to fund public education. Monday marked the first day of the 105-day legislative session, during which lawmakers are tasked with approving a new two-year budget.

Leaders of the Republican-dominated Senate have questioned the need for new taxes this year, while Democrats have said they’ll be necessary to comply with a state Supreme Court order to improve funding for K-12 schools. Democrats hold a slim majority in the House.

Voters have repeatedly passed initiatives to require a two-thirds majority vote of the Legislature to approve tax increases, most recently Initiative 1185 in 2012.

But the state Supreme Court struck down the two-thirds requirement in 2013, saying that the state constitution requires only a simple majority vote of members of the House and Senate to pass laws.

Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, said the two-thirds standard that the Senate passed Monday won’t apply to attempts to increase taxes that already exist, such as the sales tax and gas tax.

“It only would impact things like a capital gains tax or an income tax, or a radical change to the tax structure in our state,” Fain said.

That means the rule could potentially apply to some of Inslee’s proposals to raise about $1.4 billion in new revenue, including his idea to tax capital gains and the state’s top polluters.

Fain said he thinks it is reasonable to require a “higher threshold” of votes in the Senate to approve tax measures of that magnitude.

Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, noted that the rule change was a compromise for him and some other members of the Republican Senate majority, who wanted it to be farther-reaching and apply to all tax increases.

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, spoke against enacting the two-thirds rule in the Senate, saying it was just a way to go around the state Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling and allow a minority of senators to block tax proposals.

“I feel very strongly this is a matter of constitutional principle that we have to adhere to,” Frockt said Monday.

Frockt said he expects that members of his party will challenge the Senate’s new two-thirds rule as soon as they have an opportunity, or whenever a new tax measure comes up for a vote this year.

If that happens, Democratic Lt. Gov. Brad Owen — who presides over the Senate — would make a ruling as to how many votes are required to pass the legislation at hand.

Owen said Monday that if a challenge to the two-thirds rule is presented, he will follow what is laid out in the state constitution. In its 2013 ruling, the Supreme Court said the constitution is clear in saying that only a simple majority of lawmakers — or 50 percent plus one — is necessary to pass regular legislation, including tax bills. Exceptions are made only in special cases, such as passing bonds and constitutional amendments.

“A (Senate) rule can never supersede or nullify the constitution,” Owen said Monday.

Yet Owen also said Monday that he couldn’t say precisely how he’d rule on a challenge to the new Senate policy until he could see the language of the specific tax bill being proposed.

The Senate’s new two-thirds rule doesn’t affect votes in the House, which has its own set of procedural rules for voting.

Republicans have tried several times before to amend the state constitution so that it would include the two-thirds vote requirement for tax measures, but without success.

State Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, is proposing the constitutional amendment again this year. Her proposal will most likely get a committee hearing in the coming weeks, as it has been referred to the Senate Government Operations and State Security Committee, which she chairs.