January 26, 2013 in City

Why doesn’t this tax plan require a supermajority?

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Last year, voters in Washington approved Initiative 1185, a measure requiring supermajority votes of two-thirds to raise taxes in the Legislature.

Voters approved I-1185 with a not-quite-supermajority of 63.9 percent.

Two years prior, about the same percentage of voters approved I-1053, which also established a two-thirds majority requirement for tax increases. In 2007, voters approved I-960, also requiring two-thirds majorities for tax increases, with 51.34 percent of voters saying yes. In 1993, 51.21 percent of voters approved Initiative 601, which established a two-thirds majority for tax increases.

What would you call this record of public support? A clear signal of the voters’ intent? Or not quite enough of a majority?

The irony at the center of the mania for supermajorities in Washington is that they have always been approved by mere simple majorities. Even as support for anti-tax measures grows – approval margins for these initiatives are expanding, partly in response, it seems, to efforts to overturn them in the Legislature or the courts – these margins remain below the level of two-thirds support.

In fact, the only example in recent years of a citizens’ initiative that approached a two-thirds majority was the Minimum Wage Act in 1998, which raised the minimum wage and tied it to annual cost-of-living increases. That passed with 66.1 percent of the vote.

Shouldn’t we require a two-thirds majority to require a two-thirds majority? If simple majorities are insufficient to the basic decisions of governance, aren’t they insufficient for changing the threshold for the basic decisions of government?

And, if we’re going to require a 71 percent majority on the City Council to raise taxes, shouldn’t we require that 71 percent of citizens support that?

As Spokane voters prepare to decide whether to impose a supermajority requirement for tax increases on the City Council – setting the bar for passage at 5-2 – I thought I’d put this idea to Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin, a big proponent of the measure.

McLaughlin argues that support for supermajorities is at supermajority-ish levels and growing: Every county in the state approved I-1185, she said. In our own county, it passed with 70 percent approval. And even in the city of Spokane, the pro-gay-marriage, pro-legal pot majorities paled compared to those in support of I-1185.

“In the 3rd Legislative District – the most liberal in the state – even there, people are saying, ‘We think there should be a higher threshold,’ ” McLaughlin said.

She’s right about that. In the deep blue 3rd, 65.86 percent of voters said yes to I-1185. That is a whole lot of voters. But not quite two-thirds. And definitely not 71 percent.

Citywide? I-1185 passed with 66.07 percent support.

Big majorities, all. Just not quite super.

I figure Proposition 2 will pass with a simple majority, and though I dislike supermajority requirements for taxation – because I think they drain the ability to fund essential services, because I think they grow like mold on simplistic misperceptions about government, because I think they privilege political minorities over majorities – I figure that voters will have made their wishes clear, by the essential measure of democracy: the majority.

Supermajorities may someday seem like quaint relics, because we will eventually pass unanimous vote requirements for tax increases, at which point the antitax movement will be complete, and all taxing decisions will be made by Matt Shea, who will run the Legislature at gunpoint.

McLaughlin views the dynamic much differently. She says that a lot of people are struggling financially, that those like the elderly, on fixed incomes, find themselves unable to keep up with taxes. In her time on the City Council, she says, she has come to see how raising taxes can become a default position.

“So many times, it’s just so easy to say, ‘Let’s just find some more money instead of dealing with the hard issues about why it’s costing us so much in the first place,’ ” she said.

For the city, this is labor costs, she says, and the reluctance to combat unions because of political patronage. A 5-2 majority – or a simple majority vote of the citizens – provides protection for taxpayers, she said.

It also institutionalizes, and formalizes, the all-cuts philosophy of government, at whose core there is a corrosive notion: All government does is take.

What if we required a supermajority requirement for cuts? A 5-2 requirement for, say, reducing the size of the police department by 19 officers?

Maybe next time around.

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

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