Much to the chagrin of a majority of Washington voters, the state Supreme Court on Thursday put the kibosh on the requirement of a two-thirds’ majority vote of the Legislature to goose taxes. As The Herald Editorial Board opined last fall, the popular measure was clearly at variance with the Washington Constitution. If Washingtonians want to impose a have-it-stick supermajority requirement, we argued, we will need a constitutional amendment. It was a sentiment echoed by Justice Susan Owens who wrote the court’s 6-3 majority opinion.
“Our holding today is not a judgment on the wisdom of requiring a supermajority for the passage of tax legislation. Such judgment is left to the legislative branch of our government,” Owens wrote. “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.”
One of the plaintiffs, Everett Rep. Mike Sells, makes a critical point that the supermajority requirement also extends to special interest and big business exemptions that bleed billions from the state. It takes a simple majority to finagle a tax loophole, but a supermajority to unsnaggle it. “Closing a tax exemption could be effectively blocked by 17 State Senators, while we have 147 members of both the House and Senate,” Sells said. “That truly was, as the court put it, ‘a tyranny of the minority.’”
The two-thirds’ rule sounded like an effective stick to batter lawmakers into not raising taxes. Instead, it became a case study in unintended consequences, of corporations preserving their loopholes while lawmakers gave state universities the OK to hike tuition. In the long view of history, the requirement is inconsistent with how representative government is designed to work.
“On the larger question of democracy, it affirms the principle of one person one vote,” said Rep. Hans Dunshee. “The U.S. Senate, with filibuster rules, and other governments have proven that supermajority rules harm a people’s ability to govern themselves.”
No one expects the Legislature to go slap happy on taxes, especially with a Republican-majority Senate and a governor who made a read-my-lips revenue pledge. The decision does open the door to poring over hundreds of lobbyist-maneuvered tax loopholes that have life everlasting. In light of anemic revenues and the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision mandating additional resources for K-12, lawmakers should revisit the 640 tax giveaways that already exist. That was the mission of a bipartisan proposal last year co-sponsored by Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Democrat, and Glenn Anderson, a Republican, It makes sound fiscal sense to review and set expiration dates on hundreds of loopholes — many that should continue, many that should be pitched.
If there’s chatter about revenue, it should focus on exemptions. Meanwhile, lawmakers need to tackle the big kahuna, the state’s paramount duty, fully funding K-12 education.