Citizens’ tax curb on block

THURSDAY, FEB. 4, 2010

Sen. Brown cites ‘crisis’ in effort to suspend I-960

OLYMPIA – Senate leaders want to make it easier for state lawmakers to raise taxes.

Democrats will begin a move today to suspend the supermajority required to raise taxes that was approved by voters two years ago.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, called Initiative 960 a “straightjacket on our state in a time of economic crisis” and a requirement that gives a minority the ability to obstruct the Legislature.

Senate Bill 6843 would suspend, through June 2011, the requirement that all tax increases must pass with a two-thirds majority. The supermajority would come back after that, unless the Legislature took further action to suspend it. But if it passes, simple majorities could approve any tax increases sought this year or for the biennial budget that must be passed next year.

The bill also would make a permanent change that any time voters approve an initiative that alters policy but doesn’t designate a new tax to pay for it, the Legislature could raises taxes with a simple majority to accomplish that policy. Examples of that would be initiatives voters approved in 2000 to shrink classroom sizes and raise pay for teachers, which have been suspended in tight state budgets.

It also would allow the Legislature to “clarify legislative intent” if the state Supreme Court were to interpret the law as not allowing a particular tax or tax exemption. That’s significant in light of a court decision last fall that ruled against a tax on Dot Foods, an out-of-state supplier. That ruling is estimated to drop state tax revenues by $137 million per year.

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said the proposal was a prelude to raising taxes to bail out poor state budget decisions of the past. “It creates a climate of fear and apprehension that will only quash job creation and put more people out of work.”

Democrats should first put any tax increases to a vote and see if they get a two-thirds majority, Hewitt said. Republicans would likely agree to changes that address the Dot Foods case, he added.

Republicans have introduced a bill to reaffirm the two-thirds majority, and several have joined Tim Eyman on a new initiative that would ask voters in November to reinstate the supermajority. Eyman described the Democrats’ proposal with a string of adjectives that included “galling,” “exasperating” and “arrogant.”

Brown said her main concern was not with Eyman’s upcoming initiative but with writing a budget “consistent with our values” that doesn’t make drastic cuts to education, health care and children’s services.

The bill is one of two proposals being discussed by Democrats looking for a way around the two-thirds majority requirement imposed by I-960. The other would be to repeal it entirely, Brown said.

It is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee this afternoon and will likely go to the Senate floor sometime next week, Brown said.

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