State Supreme Court hears arguments on tax initiative

OLYMPIA — The state Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday on the constitutionality of a tax-limiting ballot initiative that was struck down by a lower court. Opponents argued the voter-approved measure was an unconstitutional threat while proponents argued that it was well within the voters’ power to enact.

The high court hearing came two months after King County Superior Court Judge William Downing said the measure was a thinly disguised effort to propose a constitutional amendment — which can’t be done by initiative in Washington state — and violated a rule that initiatives be limited to a single subject.

Voters last fall narrowly approved I-1366, which would have cut the sales tax by 1 percentage point beginning April 15 unless lawmakers allowed a public vote on a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds majority in the Legislature for future tax increases.

Opponents, including two Democratic lawmakers and the League of Women Voters of Washington, quickly sued.

“The initiative power gives the right of the people to enact laws,” Paul Lawrence, an attorney for the coalition that sued, told the justices on Tuesday. “It does not give the people the right to invoke the amendment process to change the Washington Constitution. It does not give people the right to enact laws that contain multiple subjects.”

Deputy Solicitor General Callie Castillo, arguing for the state on behalf of the initiative, said I-1366 did deal with a single subject — tax reform — and that the conditional aspects of the legislation are allowed because the voters weren’t forcing the Legislature to do anything.

“There’s nothing in the Constitution that restricts the people from passing conditional legislation that may put pressure on the Legislature to accomplish a specific act,” she said.

The arguments came as the Legislature is in its first full week of an overtime legislative session to complete work on a supplemental budget. If the tax cut were to take effect, it would slash state revenue by an estimated $8 billion through the middle of 2021 at a time when lawmakers are working out how to respond to court rulings demanding vast increases in education and mental health spending.

Justices peppered attorneys with questions about constitutional issues related to the measure. One question involved the lengths voters could go to via initiative, including the hypothetical passage of an initiative that said the state sales tax would be rolled back unless the governor resigns.

“That’s probably fine too under your analysis,” Justice Debra Stephens noted to Richard Stephens, an attorney for the initiative sponsors.

“I believe so,” he said. “The court has never articulated what kinds of conditions are inappropriate for conditional legislation.”

Justice Charles Wiggins asked Lawrence, the attorney for the coalition opposed to the initiative, if the Legislature could have passed an independent bill this session worded exactly like the initiative.

Lawrence said no, because, among other issues, the “multiple subject problems apply to the Legislature as well as to the initiative process.”

An effort by state Senate Republicans to send voters a constitutional amendment on requiring the two-thirds supermajority in the Legislature for future tax increases failed on the Senate floor last month.

Currently, taxes can be raised with approval by 25 of the Senate’s 49 members and 50 of the House’s 98 members. I-1366’s sponsor, Tim Eyman, has filed another initiative to limit tax increases to one year unless they’re approved by voters.

There is no timeframe on when the Supreme Court may rule.

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