In 2004, Spokane Mayor Jim West told the people of Spokane something they often don’t like to hear. We need to raise your taxes, the mayor essentially said, referring to the need to fund the city’s 10-year street repair bond.
In the end, 60 percent of voters approved hiking their own taxes by about $150 a year. Why did they do it? They were convinced of the need to repair the city’s crumbling streets. They were shown exactly where the money would go. The mayor worked with the council and community to build a broad public consensus.
Fast-forward to 2012, when the Spokane City Council reached consensus again and voted to approve an increase in the hotel-motel tax to fund expansion of the Spokane Convention Center and Spokane Arena.
These are two examples of how government should work. But it’s not always how it does work.
To encourage consensus, Washington state voters have – five times – approved a supermajority requirement for the state Legislature to raise taxes. They have sent a strong message to lawmakers: Make increasing the financial burden on citizens a last resort, and be sure there is broad agreement first.
It’s a message voters in Spokane have the opportunity to send yet again on Feb. 12.
Proposition 2 is a reasonable ballot measure that would require all tax increases in Spokane get five votes on the seven-member Spokane City Council for approval. Currently, it takes only four votes to raise taxes.
A yes vote would be a common-sense policy decision by voters, and a message indicating they want elected officials to find efficiencies and consensus before raising taxes.
Opponents say supermajorities are unconstitutional and undemocratic. In fact, supermajority requirements are very much a part of our democracy. The governing documents of our city, state and federal government all include higher vote thresholds for certain policy actions.
In the city of Spokane, supermajority requirements are common in the city charter. It takes five votes, for instance, to override a mayor’s veto. It takes five votes to pass an emergency budget ordinance.
In our state constitution, there are more than 20 supermajority requirements. And supermajority requirements are also a routine part of the U.S. Constitution.
The citizens of Spokane have a long history of supporting supermajority requirements for tax increases. By overwhelming majorities, voters approved the higher threshold at the state level in 1993, 1998, 2007, 2010 and 2012.
The most recent version – statewide Initiative 1185 – passed in the city of Spokane with almost 70 percent of the vote. The approval was nearly unanimous among the city’s and county’s precincts.
To get around the state requirement, legislators in Olympia will inevitably look at pushing more costs onto local governments, expecting local officials to raise taxes accordingly. That explains why voters in Pierce County passed a similar, local supermajority requirement last fall.
Proposition 2 goes no further than what has passed at the state level, and it doesn’t go as far as what is required in other states.
In Michigan and Colorado, for example, all tax increases must be approved by voters.
Despite the claims of opponents that the requirement would handcuff lawmakers’ ability to do their job, voters have shown a willingness to increase their financial burden when they can be shown how their hard-earned dollars will be spent. In fact, in the 2012 election, 11 Colorado cities approved tax increases for various public services.
Proposition 2 asks Spokane voters to adopt a reasonable taxpayer protection policy at the local level, one that already exists in state law. It does not make increasing taxes impossible – it simply requires lawmakers to reach greater consensus before raising the financial burden they place on citizens. “It has forced lawmakers to fully debate the merits and compromise,” the Walla Walla Union Bulletin said of supermajority requirements. The Spokesman-Review said the requirement “keeps lawmakers focused on efficiencies.” In the absence of consensus, lawmakers could always ask voters to approve tax increases with a simple majority vote.
By passing Proposition 2, Spokane voters will be clearly framing the city’s budget debate by forcing lawmakers to focus on efficiencies first. With approval, voters will also be sending a strong message to legislators in Olympia – don’t pass your state budget difficulties on to taxpayers in Spokane.