OLYMPIA — The state Supreme Court agreed to fast-track an appeal of a case involving the two-thirds majority for tax increases that voters have imposed through initiatives.
The high court said today it will hear the appeal of a challenge to the law by the League of Education Voters, the Washington Education Association and several legislators who filed suit after a bill to end a tax break for large banks received a simple majority, but not the required supermajority. It will take up the case on “an expedited basis” suggesting it could be heard and decided by the time the next regular session of the Legislature convenes in January.
But possibly not before voters go to the polls in November, with a new initiative that asks them to extend supermajority for another two years.
The court also refused to grant Attorney General Rob McKenna's request a stay of the judgment issued by King County Superior Court Judge Bruce Heller in May, meaning the supermajority requirement is not in effect now. But because the Legislature isn't in session, that has little practical effect.
Heller ruled the state constitution calls for a simple majority, not a supermajority, to raise taxes. The constitution does require supermajorities for some other things, so if the writers wanted it for taxes, they could have put it in at that time, he said.
Requiring a higher standard through an initiative is unconstitutional, Heller said. So is the requirement that a tax passed with a simple majority go to voters, which isn't in the constitution.
Tim Eyman, the sponsor of several voter-approved initiatives to enact or re-enact the super-majority and this year's measure to extend it for two years, said he's confident the Supreme Court will uphold the requirement because it has done so in the past.
But opponents of I-1185 counter that the court has never ruled directly on the issue of the supermajority. Instead it has let the provision stand by refusing to rule on cases because they didn't provide a “justiciable issue”, or something which the court had the authority to decide.
Heller's ruling gives the court a justiciable issue. The case involves a bill that would have removed a tax break large out-of-state banks receive for some first mortgages, while leaving that incentive in place for smaller banks. Money collected from the change in tax policy would have been used to reduce public school class sizes in kindergarten through grade 3. The three legislators who later became plaintiffs in the lawsuit, specifically asked if the change could be passed by a simple majority, or if the House could override that requirement, and were told no by House Speaker Frank Chopp in a dialog that foreshadowed the challenge.
Another potential challenge to the supermajority, which involved taxes on roll-your-own cigarette machines, was dismissed this month when both sides agreed to drop the case.