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Constitutionality of I-960 debated

Fri., Feb. 5, 2010, midnight

Initiative calls for supermajority on tax increases

OLYMPIA – Changing rules for tax increases imposed by voters in 2007 would either flout the will of the people or restore majority rule to the Legislature, a Senate panel was told Thursday.

Suspending parts of Initiative 960 through June 2011, and permanently changing others, is a good idea, said people representing social services agencies, low-income residents and college students. It’s a terrible idea, said others representing businesses, farmers and those who promoted the ballot measure.

Members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, without reaching a decision Thursday, allowed a brief debate about the initiative’s constitutionality during a hearing on a proposal by Senate Democrats to make changes in the way taxes are raised.

“It’s clearly unconstitutional,” Chairwoman Margarita Prentice, D-Seattle, said of the measure. The state Supreme Court had a chance to rule on that last year, “but it punted and said the Legislature can fix it.”

That’s a reference to a 2008 lawsuit brought by Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. The court refused to rule on the case, saying it was a “political question” the court couldn’t handle.

Wait a minute, argued Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley: “If the Supreme Court didn’t rule it unconstitutional, it’s not. It’s inappropriate for a member of this body to say we know better.”

Of course I-960 makes raising taxes more difficult by requiring a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Legislature, said state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver. That’s what voters wanted when they passed it.

“What does the phrase ‘will of the people’ mean to you?” Benton asked. “It means to me the people of this state have spoken.”

But the two-thirds requirement is actually undemocratic because it means taxes can’t be raised if a majority – but less than a supermajority – agrees, others argued.

“Please return majority rule to Washington,” said Jerry Reilly of the Eldercare Alliance of Washington. Then allow that simple majority to decide whether it needs to raise taxes to meet the state’s needs rather than cut programs, he added.

Seth Dawson, who represents various human services organizations such as the Coalition for the Homeless, said legislators are in a tough position: “There’s nothing pretty about amending this initiative. There’s nothing pretty about enacting these cuts.”

Nor can they keep raising taxes, said opponents of the bill who argued changes to the initiative are merely a prelude to a tax hike. Why not look at the pension system, turning state liquor stores and printing jobs over to private business and reinstituting a “priorities of government” system, said Amber Carter of the Association of Washington Business.

Or sending any tax increase to the voters in November, which is also allowed under I-960, where it would only need a simple majority, said Scott Dahlman of the state Farm Bureau.

The committee will vote whether to advance SB 6843 at a future hearing.

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