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Justices to weigh tax issue

Lawsuit challenges two-thirds mandate

SEATTLE – State Rep. Jamie Pedersen has a message for the Washington state Supreme Court: You’ve told the Legislature to put more money into education, now give lawmakers the tools they need to make that happen.

The court is holding a hearing Tuesday on a case Pedersen says holds the key to whether the Legislature can properly respond to the court’s earlier ruling on the inadequacy of Washington state’s education spending.

In the tax lawsuit before the court this week, a coalition of lawmakers and education groups contend the two-thirds majority vote required in the Legislature for raising taxes or closing tax loopholes is unconstitutional.

A lower court agreed with their assertion against the supermajority and the state Supreme Court has expedited its consideration of the two-thirds requirement, which came about because of a series of citizen initiatives. Voters most recently approved the supermajority rule two years ago, and initiative promoter Tim Eyman is asking the public to renew the measure in November.

The Washington Constitution requires a simple majority vote of the Legislature to approve most laws, but the supermajority or two-thirds vote has been the law for tax increases thanks mostly to Eyman’s measures.

The state constitution cannot be changed through the initiative process; a vote of the Legislature is required.

That is at the heart of some of the arguments before the Supreme Court in this week’s tax lawsuit. Briefs have been filed by several organizations, ranging from the League of Women Voters to the Association of Washington Business and the Freedom Foundation.

A somewhat unique aspect to this case is the inclusion of Gov. Chris Gregoire as a third party to the lawsuit, in which the attorney general’s office, as the state’s official lawyer, is charged with defending the two-thirds majority law.

The attorney general has argued this case is a premature challenge of the two-thirds rule because it hasn’t stopped the Legislature from doing its work.

In her brief to the Supreme Court, Gregoire and her attorneys emphasize the necessity of a decisive statement by the court, to rescue her office and the Legislature from the budget limbo the initiatives have stuck them in. She speaks of the trouble she has had in creating state budget proposals without the freedom to close tax loopholes or raise business fees.

Pedersen says life in state government has gotten a whole lot harder, thanks to the Supreme Court’s January decision on education funding, known as the McCleary case. The court’s very specific ruling in the school spending lawsuit states that the Legislature has done a good job making plans to change the way the state pays for education, but it goes on to order lawmakers to find the money now to pay for it.

Most people agree the state needs between $3 billion and $4 billion to fulfill its constitutional promise to fully pay for basic education. One possible solution is to raise taxes, create a new dedicated tax, increase fees, or do some combination of these options.

The other possible solution, Pedersen says, is to “cut the heck out of everything else” the state spends money on: health care for the needy, disability payments, the state Ecology Department, state parks, state colleges and universities, student scholarships and the arts.

“I can’t imagine how you could get 50 votes to do those things,” let alone two-thirds of both chambers of the Legislature, he said.

He predicted the eventual outcome, if the Supreme Court does not give the Legislature back the power to raise taxes and close loopholes, would be a failure to answer the McCleary challenge.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, has promised to propose a constitutional amendment to make the two-thirds vote permanent during this next legislative session. Many of her Republican colleagues appear to support the idea.