By Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press
SEATTLE — The Washington Supreme Court today struck down a requirement for a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature to pass a tax increase.
A divided high court ruled 6-3 that an initiative requiring a two-thirds vote was in conflict with the state constitution and enabled a “tyranny of the minority” to govern.
“Our holding today is not a judgment on the wisdom of requiring a supermajority for the passage of tax legislation,” Justice Susan Owens wrote for the majority. “Such judgment is left to the legislative branch of our government.
“Should the people and the Legislature still wish to require a supermajority vote for tax legislation, they must do so through constitutional amendment, not through legislation,” she wrote.
A coalition of lawmakers and education groups sued the state over requirements in Initiative 1053 passed by voters in 2010. A King County judge decided last spring that the state constitution requires only a simple majority to pass tax proposals.
In a blistering dissent, Justice James Johnson called the majority opinion an act of tyranny.
“There is considerable irony in today’s decision given the majority’s claimed fear of tyrannical minority control. Through a single decision, a court of nine people (actually only six votes) is imposing their policy preference over that of the 1,575,655 voters who passed Initiative 1053 (I-1053) and the millions who qualified and passed similar tax protections,” he wrote.
“I regretfully observe that this court has become the tyrannous minority it purports to guard against. This violation of our constitution can only detract from public respect for this court and its decisions. I therefore dissent,” he wrote.
Today’s decision ignited debate on whether Democratic lawmakers would forge ahead quickly to enact new or higher taxes, or extend existing ones. Republican lawmakers said they intend to uphold the will of the people by opposing efforts to pass taxes with anything less than a supermajority.
“There is not going to be a jump to raise taxes,” House Majority Leader Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, told reporters less than an hour after release of the decision.
But he and Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, made clear the ruling opens a pathway to options such as closing tax loopholes and extending existing taxes blocked by the two-thirds rule.
“There are now a broader set of tools on the table,” said Hunter, the chief budget writer for House Democrats.
In the Senate, power rests in the hands of a Republican-dominated coalition.
“I am sure Democratic members of the House are excited about this but the members of the Senate Majority Coalition will stay the course,” said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, the Republican leader in the chamber.
Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett, said the decision didn’t change the majority.
“The opinion wasn’t a surprise. I thought the constitutional question was clear,” he said. “The bigger political question is how people will respond.”
Chris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education Voters, one of the lead plaintiffs called the ruling a “a huge win for kids and schools.”
“Washington schools need to be fully funded in order to ensure that all kids reach their potential. This ruling, combined with the recent McCleary decision, will help ensure that our kids have all the resources they need to get an excellent education,” she said.
Most people agree the state needs about $4 billion to fulfill its constitutional promise to fully pay for basic education by 2018.
The two-thirds majority rule has been approved in a series of initiatives pushed by activist Tim Eyman. Voters most recently approved the supermajority rule last November.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Susan Owens, states that under a commonsense understanding, any bill receiving a simple majority vote will become law. No language in the provision qualifies that requirement by stating a bill needs “at least a majority vote.”
They wrote that without the simple majority rule in the constitution, the people or the Legislature could require particular bills to receive 90 percent approval rather than just a two-thirds approval, thus essentially ensuring that those types of bills would never pass.
“Such a result is antithetical to the notion of a functioning government and should be rejected as such,” the justices wrote.
Reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.