OLYMPIA — Senate Democrats pushed changes to voter-approved tax-raising restrictions out of committee today, moving one of the more contentious issues of the legislative session toward a floor debate.
Democrats on the Senate Ways and Means Committee rejected several amendments proposed by Republicans that would have reduced the amount of time the supermajority required in Initiative 960 was suspended and made some other changes to SB 6843.
As written, the proposal suspends the two-thirds majority needed for any tax increase through June 30, 2011, which means taxes could be raised for the supplemental budget for this biennium and the main budget for the next biennium with a simple majority vote.
Sen. Joseph Zarelli, ranking Republican on the committee, said an amendment to limit the suspension to this session only was “a middle ground.” If the economy is still bad next year, the Legislature could take up extending the change at that time.
But Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said there would be more economic forecasts after the Legislature adjourns this year but before it returns next January. “We need the flexibility this would provide.
The amendment failed 8-13, on a party line vote.
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Other amendments, defeated on similar vote counts, would have:
— Limited changes to tax exemptions, that under the bill would never need a supermajority, to only those changes recommended by a special commission set up to study them. As written, the Legislature could decide to remove the exemption for the sales tax on food, with a simple majority vote. That’s more than what some people call loopholes, Zarelli said.
But the commission has only studied some of the hundreds of loopholes written into state law, Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island. To give that power to an unelected commission is giving away the constitutional authority the Legislature has, he added.
—Not allowed the Legislature to change the shift the money from a tax collected for one purpose to be used for another purpose or put into the general fund. That would provide “greater disclosure to the public about what they’re paying for,” Zarelli said.
Countered Tom: “To the extent that we do have excess funds, it makes no sense to me that we wouldn’t use those funds.”
—Kept in place a requirement that any tax increase approved by the Legislature be subject to an advisory vote on the general election ballot. Even if the Legislature can raise taxes with a simple majority, “we ask the public their feeling on that,” Zarelli said.
A ballot measure can cost an average of $500,000 and set up false expectations among voters, who already have the authority to repeal a law through a referendum, Tom said. Setting a budget is the job of the Legislature, he added: “The voters sent us down here to look at the big picture.”