Government of the many, by the few

FRIDAY, JUNE 1, 2012

Is the supermajority constitutional?

A judge in King County said no this week, ruling that Initiative 1053, which requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to raise any tax, violated the state’s constitutional establishment of a simple majority to pass laws. But as the legal arguments move to the state Supreme Court, it’s worth noting the question that Judge Bruce Heller didn’t answer: Is the supermajority stupid?

Our past several legislative sessions scream yes. What we did, in November 2010, was hand control of the budget to a minority of legislators, and a small minority at that – 17 people in the Senate can prevent passage of a tax. The initiative and its predecessors created a superminority, a stubbornly destructive gang of hard-core tax ideologues – people who would vote against any tax, no matter what. The years since I-1053 passed have proven that there is simply no scenario one could envision – no suffering or social cost – that might persuade this superminority to support the slightest tax increase on the wealthiest citizen.

In other words, most of us voted to put handcuffs on the people most of us voted for and handed the key to people most of us did not vote for.

I-1053 has been the biggest single factor in determining the way the state has managed its huge budget shortfalls in recent years – cutting services to poor kids, sick old folks and schools, hiking tuition outrageously and taking an utterly hands-off approach to raising any tax. Even closing loopholes – the pretend campaign solution of every politician – came to be seen, sometimes, as subject to the two-thirds rule.

Is this what we wanted? Maybe so. Tax hawks continually invoke “the will of the people” when talking of the supermajority, but we tend to pick and choose which iteration of the people’s will is sacrosanct. How about the will of the people that we pay teachers more and reduce class sizes? Not so sacred, it turns out. Or the will of the people, indicated in polling last fall, that we raise the sales tax by a half-cent? Never mind.

It may be that the supermajority requirement remains the will of the majority. We’ve passed it twice, overriding a Democratic-led effort to set it aside. Free people are free to do dumb, shortsighted things, and Tim Eyman gives us a chance to demonstrate this annually. His “ideas” fail as often as they succeed – and yet he and the tax absolutists feel sure that when it comes to our will, they have the right read on it.

Simplistic tax caps are always most appealing to voters when presented as single issues, out of context; when you ask people to make a choice between cuts and services, they tend to support balance, not extremism. The truth is our will is not nearly as single-minded as the superminority’s.

It is the task of representative government to wade through all of what we want and do something realistic. The supermajority requirement devalues the majority vote – the vote of majority lawmakers, and the vote of all of those who voted for them. It inflates the value of, say, Matt Shea’s vote – and his voters – above those of, say, Andy Billig’s.

But does that make it unconstitutional? Attorney General Rob McKenna immediately appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court. Naturally, he said he was doing this to defend “the will of the voters.” I like Heller’s ruling, in the same way that Eyman likes the “will of the people” when they agree with him, but the legal arguments against it may still prevail. It’s possible that I-1053 may be, in the end, both constitutional and the will of (at least some of) the people and a terrible way to run a government.

Sixty-three percent of us said yes to Initiative 1053. We’ve cut more than $10 billion from the state budget since then, and closed two little tax loopholes. Is this still our will?

Eyman has called the vote on I-1053 overwhelming. It may have been that. But it was far from super.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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