OLYMPIA – Declining to wade into the middle of a family fight, Washington’s highest court on Thursday rejected Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown’s challenge to an anti-tax ballot measure.
The unanimous ruling leaves in place a high hurdle for lawmakers wanting to increase taxes, but Brown and other lawmakers say they would likely have sent any major tax hikes to voters anyway.
Thursday’s decision means they have little choice.
“Any major revenue option would have been presented to voters regardless of how the court ruled,” Brown said.
Voters in 2007 approved Initiative 960, a Tim Eyman ballot measure that reaffirmed a controversial requirement for a two-thirds vote by lawmakers to approve a tax increase. If lawmakers couldn’t get two-thirds, they’d have to send the proposal to voters.
The test case came last year, when the Senate voted 25 to 21 to re-enact an expired liquor tax. Lt. Gov Brad Owen ruled that the measure hadn’t gotten the needed two-thirds vote. Brown went to court.
The unusual thing about the case is that it would have been easy for Brown – who heads the Senate’s large Democratic majority – to muster a simple majority vote to overrule Owen. The rules allow that.
But Brown said Thursday that she didn’t disagree with Owen’s interpretation of the law. She felt the law was unconstitutional.
Her argument was simple. The state constitution says that a majority vote is enough to pass a tax hike. And a ballot measure can’t amend the constitution.
But the high court never even got to that argument. Writing for the court, Justice Mary Fairhurst said the justices “will not referee disputes” within the Senate. For the courts to wade into an internal legislative decision, she said, “would be a grave violation of separation of powers.”
So the court dismissed Brown’s case.
“I still believe it’s unconstitutional,” Brown said Thursday of the two-thirds requirement. “That’s disappointing. On the other hand, I don’t think it really changes the outcome of where we’re headed in this legislative session.”
Republican lawmakers, who’ve been arguing for a no-new-taxes solution to the state’s unprecedented $8 billion budget shortfall, cheered the ruling.
“It’s great news, especially as we’re hearing talk of new taxes to fill the state’s budget hole, that the public will be protected from the Legislature passing huge tax hikes by a simple majority vote,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla.
Eyman also said he was pleased.
“The court properly stayed on the sidelines in this dispute,” he said.
If the two-thirds requirement had been lifted off the Legislature, Eyman said, “I haven’t got a doubt in my mind that they would have jacked up taxes right there on the spot.”