Court weighs constitutionality of state tax rule

OLYMPIA — A voter-approved law that makes it more difficult for the Legislature to raise taxes is now in the hands of the Washington Supreme Court, which is working to determine whether the rule is constitutional.

Justices heard arguments Tuesday from education advocates and the state over the law, which requires lawmakers to pass taxes with a two-thirds majority, instead of a simple majority.

Advocates believe the state Constitution says lawmakers can pass taxes with a simple majority. They argue that the voter-approved rule has prevented the state from adequately funding education and other areas of government.

“The impacts from the two-thirds requirement are real and undeniable,” said attorney Paul Lawrence. “It’s taking off the table legislative options to address the state’s most pressing problems.”

Washington’s solicitor general, Maureen Hart, reminded justices that the measure was approved by a majority of voters. She argued in written briefings that the Constitution provides a minimum for the votes needed to pass laws — a simple majority — but doesn’t prohibit rules from going above that.

Justice Tom Chambers responded to that argument by asking whether voters could approve rules requiring a 90 percent vote of lawmakers and the support of Santa Claus to raise taxes.

Voters most recently approved the supermajority rule two years ago, and initiative promoter Tim Eyman is asking the public to renew the measure in November.

Justices also explored whether it was appropriate for them to even rule on the suit. The state argued that education advocates have not demonstrated actual harm from the law and that their claims are based on speculation.

The education groups argued that the matter was of great public interest, so the court should make a call.

The arguments come as the Supreme Court has also told the Legislature that it is not adequately funding education. Observers believe the state needs between $3 billion and $4 billion to fulfill its constitutional promise to fully pay for basic education — and one solution on the table is to increase taxes.

A lower court agreed with their assertion against the supermajority and the state Supreme Court has expedited its consideration of the two-thirds requirement.

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