OLYMPIA – A coalition of House Democrats and education advocates are asking the courts to void the supermajority required for tax increases, arguing that it’s an unconstitutional limit on legislative authority.
State Republicans and the sponsor of initiatives that have repeatedly resulted in voters imposing that two-thirds majority quickly denounced the lawsuit as ignoring the will of the voters.
Tim Eyman, who had another such initiative certified Monday for this November’s ballot, said the suit could boost that measure. It could also provide campaign fodder for Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, who as state attorney general will have the task of defending the supermajority requirement in the courts.
“This is going to bode well for us,” Eyman said of Initiative 1125. “It’s an extraordinary gift they’ve given to the McKenna campaign.”
The suit involves House Bill 2078, which proposed closing a tax preference on interest received by large banks on some mortgages and using the money for reducing the number of students in kindergarten through Grade 3 classes. The bill received a 52-42 vote in the House on May 24. Speaker Frank Chopp had ruled the bill would need a two-thirds majority to pass, so even though it had a simple majority, the bill was never sent to the Senate for a vote, and died when the session ended the next day.
The lawsuit contends the bill should have been sent to the Senate for a vote because it received a majority, which is all the state constitution requires for passage. That requirement can’t be overridden by an initiative, it needs a constitutional amendment, the lawsuit says. (A copy of the lawsuit is available here, on the Publicola site.)
Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, said the lawsuit was a way to reinforce that education is the state’s top priority.
Washington state Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur said in a press release the suit shows House Democrats, the WEA and other supporters are far removed “from the will of the people.”
The argument isn’t new. Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the question has been around as long as he’s been in the Legislature. Initiatives on the ballot pass with a simple majority, so do other bills before the Legislature, even tax exemptions, need only a simple majority in each chamber. But raising taxes takes a different standard, he said.
“The fundamental thing, for me, is wanting to get some resolution,” Ormsby said. The Legislature has changed or disregarded other initiatives, he added, including two on school funding that passed with higher approval numbers than the two-thirds majority for taxes.
In 2008, Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, challenged the super majority required in a previous Eyman initiative. On a 9-0 ruling, the high court rejected the challenge, saying the remedy Brown requested – to order the president of the Senate to rule a bill had passed with a simple majority – wasn’t one they could grant. Because of that, they didn’t have to rule on whether the supermajority was constitutional.
The current lawsuit involves a different set of facts, but it is the same issue, Ormsby said.
But the two-thirds majority isn’t the only thing that kept HB 2078 from becoming law, Eyman said. It never came up for a vote in the Senate, where it might not have received even a simple majority because of a bloc of “middle of the road” Democrats who regularly voted against tax increases, and it never got to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who might’ve vetoed it after saying she’d heard the anti-tax message from the voters in 2010.
“You really have to deal with a lot of what-ifs,” Eyman said.
The lawsuit was filed in King County Superior Court with the League of Education Voters as the first name among the plaintiffs and the state of Washington and Gregoire as the defendants.