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Pro and con: I-1185 -- Supermajority for tax hikes

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  • Voters will decide again on whether tax increases require a supermajority vote in the Legislature.

    Herald file 2011

    Voters will decide again on whether tax increases require a supermajority vote in the Legislature.

Vote Yes  (Jump to the Vote No argument)

Time to truly settle debate on supermajority for taxes
By Jason Mercier
In a few days, Washingtonians will start to vote by mail on Initiative 1185. The measure would reaffirm the nearly 20-year-old state law requiring that tax increases pass with a two-thirds vote in the Legislature or else receive direct voter approval.
If voting on this requirement feels like deja vu that's because it is.
Voters in Washington have enacted or confirmed the two-thirds vote requirement four times, in 1993, 1998, 2007 and 2010.
Based on the results of a recent KING 5 News poll, it looks like voters will pass it again, giving the policy a perfect track record of five for five. According to the poll, 56 percent support Initiative 1185, with 26 percent opposed and 17 percent undecided.
Requiring a supermajority vote in the Legislature to increase taxes is not unique to our state. Eighteen states (counting Washington) have some form of supermajority vote requirement for tax increases, including Oregon and California. Of the states with supermajority tax limitations, however, only the requirements in Washington and Wisconsin were enacted as ordinary law. The requirements in all other the states are part of the state constitution.
Initiative 1185 allows voters to clearly frame the state's budget debate. Washington lawmakers face a projected $1 billion shortfall for the 2013-15 budget, despite projected revenue growth of $1.5 billion. Without a two-thirds vote restriction, the Legislature is likely to consider passing substantial tax increases.
If voters pass Initiative 1185, however, lawmakers will shift their attention from raising taxes and focus instead on fundamental reforms and restructuring state spending.
This is precisely what we've seen occur since voters last reimposed the supermajority vote requirement in 2010, with their 64 percent approval of Initiative 1053. The major reforms lawmakers have pursued instead of raising taxes include:
• A constitutional debt limit reduction;
• Enhancement of the state's constitutional budget reserve account;
• Adoption of the state's first balanced budget requirement;
• Creation of a four-year budget outlook requirement;
• Major pension reforms, and;
• State employee compensation cost savings.
Even if voters pass the two-thirds requirement for the fifth time, constitutional reform is still needed, because the Legislature routinely suspends the requirement.
Undeterred by four straight losses at the ballot box, opponents of the supermajority vote requirement for tax increases are once again trying to have the voter-approved requirement declared unconstitutional. The State Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Sept. 25 challenging the law. A ruling is expected to be issued sometime before the 2013 Legislative Session.
Washington Policy Center has long recommended letting the people vote on whether to make the two-thirds requirement part of the Constitution. Should the court (as it has done the three previous times) reject the challenge to the requirement, the matter should be referred to the voters one last time. This would let us get off this seemingly endless merry-go-round of passing the same law over and over again, so we can get some certainty on this policy.
There are nearly two-dozen supermajority vote requirements currently in the state's Constitution. The most recent one was added by voters in 2007 with the passage of the state's budget stabilization account.
Based on the numerous supermajority vote requirements currently in Washington's Constitution, providing the voters the opportunity to consider adding a supermajority requirement to raise taxes would not be embracing undemocratic principles. It would simply be following the existing constitutional precedents for requiring higher vote thresholds before the government takes certain actions.
A constitutional amendment would provide the public and businesses with predictability about whether this tax protection will exist from year to year, and whether or not the four-time (pending fifth) approval of the voters for this policy was a fluke or actually reflects their consistent and ongoing desire for lawmakers to build a strong public consensus before trying to raise taxes.
Besides, what could be more representative of the public will than allowing a vote of the people on a constitutional amendment to help settle this debate once and for all?
Jason Mercier is Director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center. For more information, go to

Vote No

Legislature's real challenge is a lack of effective leaders
By Brendan Williams
The Herald notes I-1185 is funded by oil companies and other deep-pockets, as was true of previous Eyman efforts, and relates compelling legal arguments before the Washington Supreme Court, against identical Initiative 1153, as to why this limit on the Legislature's taxing authority is unconstitutional.
Clearly, I-1185 opponents are betting on this case and stretched thin by other races. I-1185's opposition has raised less than 4 percent of proponents' haul.
I agree with the legal arguments against limiting an accountable-Legislature's taxing authority. Yet let's consider a provocative possibility that will be reassuring to some and troubling to others. What if the case's outcome doesn't really matter?
Neither gubernatorial candidate supports tax increases. Further, after warning of the apocalypse to come if I-1153 passed, Democrats, as much as Republicans, publicly celebrated the all-cuts budgets that followed. The first post-I-1153 budget was "spectacular" according to the Democratic House speaker -- the opening lyric in a swelling chorus of self-congratulation through special sessions and billions in cuts thereafter.
Meanwhile, education and higher education are underfunded by billions; an aging Washington has experienced unsustainable long-term care cuts; and our state has proportionately cut more public employees than any other.
Suing to overturn the will of the taxpayers cannot change their perceptions of what government needs. Only leadership that challenges and educates will bring that change. And where is it?
Consider the last time the Legislature had unfettered taxing authority.
In 2010, Democratic supermajorities avoided closing a Wall Street bank tax loophole and raising an oil-pollution fee. Poignantly, while Tesoro lobbied against the latter with overall-wearing refinery workers, its Anacortes refinery exploded, killing seven workers. Fined $2.38 million, Tesoro then rewarded the Legislature's loyalty by giving $90,000 to limit its taxing authority. British Petroleum, amidst its ghastly Gulf of Mexico spill, also contributed $85,000 to I-1053.
Instead of taxing Wall Street banks or Big Oil, the 2010 Legislature had gone after soft drinks. That lured $16 million into the state for tax repealing Initiative 1107, with the drumbeat of anti-tax negativity helping pass I-1053 and defeat Initiative 1098 -- which would have brought a much-needed high-earners' income tax to a state with America's least progressive taxation.
Why would things be different next time? It's hard to see meaningful revenue ideas that don't get lobbied, and defeated, in the Legislature. With the 2013 session three months away, where are brave ideas for the public (with its unquestioned tax repeal referendum power) to consider? It's dangerous to go into the next two-year budget cycle believing you can build a case overnight to win over citizens who just issued a no-new taxes message.
One idea, as I've shared on this page before, is to reduce conflict between the needs of the aging and our kids. A payroll tax of 0.5 percent of earnings, split evenly between employers and employees (as the 2.9 percent Medicare Part A tax is), would generate more than $600 million a year for long-term care in-home and facility settings. Another idea would be to slightly raise, along with renewing, an expiring 2010 increase in the business tax rate for services. Raising it from 1.8 percent (prior to 2010 it was 1.5 percent) to 2 percent of gross income should raise more than $200 million a year from attorneys like me and other professional services.
Yet I fear the political imperative for touting accomplishments is inconsistent with the need to share hard truths. Absent term limits, too many lack urgency to play for the win -- they can drift and dream of better times. No court case changes this play it safe approach.
In fairness, this problem isn't isolated to our state. In "Pity the Billionaire," Thomas Frank illustrates the difference between Depression-era Democrats, with their populist message winning support for reforms ("they repeatedly told the nation why they were doing these things"), and today's Congressional Democrats, who blur party lines and are reluctant to offend Wall Street benefactors. Money that is "speech" does the talking today.
I-1185 may prove unconstitutional. But that's immaterial unless the Legislature and next governor treat taxpayers like adults.
In his last vote in 2010, former state Rep. Brendan Williams of Olympia was one of six House members opposing budget cuts.
Story tags » LegislatureState elections

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