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Washington Supreme Court Tosses Out Supermajority Tax Vote Requirement

Northwest News Network | Feb. 28, 2013 5:05 p.m.

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Cacophony, Wikipedia

OLYMPIA, Wash. - In a major decision Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court tossed out the state’s 2/3rds supermajority requirement for raising taxes. In a 6 to 3 decision, the court ruled that the voter-approved law violates a provision of the Washington state constitution that requires a simple majority vote in the state legislature to approve bills.

“The plain language, constitutional history, and weight of persuasive authority support reading this provision as setting both a minimum and a maximum voting requirement,” Justice Susan Owens wrote in the majority opinion.

The legal challenge to the supermajority requirement came from Democratic lawmakers and education funding advocates. Washington voters have repeatedly approved the supermajority requirement. Initiative activist Tim Eyman has argued Washington should have a high threshold to raise taxes.

Democrats responded positively. Here’s Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s reaction:

“The state Supreme Court did the right thing today in ruling that a supermajority requirement for ordinary legislation would alter our system of government. The supermajority requirement gave a legislative minority the power to squelch ideas even when those ideas had majority support. That is inconsistent with our fundamental form of representative democracy.”

The much anticipated ruling could prove a game-changer in Olympia where lawmakers face a projected $1B shortfall in the next two-year budget, plus a Supreme Court mandate to increase funding for public schools.

“I think it gives us additional options that we can look at,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, at a news conference shortly after the ruling was published. “Now when we look at even [tax] loophole closures it gives us probably a greater opportunity to have that option when we’re trying to balance that budget.”

But over in the Washington senate, where 23 Republicans and 2 breakaway Democrats have control, there was a very different reaction to the ruling. Deputy Republican Leader Don Benton said he would propose a change to senate rules to require a two-thirds vote on taxes out of that chamber. Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said the Ways and Means committee planned to approve an amendment to enshrine the supermajority rule in the Washington constitution.

“I think one of our roles in the legislature is to fulfill the wishes of the people,” said Tom. “The voters have been very clear in Washington state, we’ve had five votes on this …  [and] we want to make sure that the wishes of the people are respected.” 

Initiative 601 in 1993 was the first time Washington voters approved a two-thirds requirement for tax hikes. The most recent vote was last November when Washington voters approved I-1185 by nearly a supermajority margin. It, like past similar measures, was sponsored by anti-tax activist Tim Eyman.

Over the years, the Washington Supreme Court has rejected previous legal challenges to the two-thirds rule on the grounds the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring their lawsuit. In this case, the high court found the lawmakers had standing because they had tried and failed - on the floor of the Washington House - to close a tax exemption with only a simple majority vote. The Speaker of the House ultimately ruled the measure needed a supermajority vote to pass. That was a carefully choreographed vote designed to create the pretext for a legal challenge.

The three members of the Washington Supreme Court who dissented are Justices Charles Johnson, James Johnson and Debra Stephens. In his dissent, Justice Charles Johnson writes the majority disregards “20 years of precedent” and is charting “a new course for the court to more actively engage in the political process. This change is both unwise and unprecedented.”

Read the decision [Copyright 2013 NWNEWS]

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