March 3, 2013 in Opinion

Smart Bombs: Ruling won’t unleash legislators

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Robed barbarians have thwarted the will of the people! Taxmageddon is upon us!

Relax. Just because the state Supreme Court tossed the supermajority requirement for tax increases, it doesn’t mean we’re in danger of becoming a high-tax state. State legislators inclined to raise taxes have been so thoroughly whipped, they’re likely to keep their tails between their legs.

Remember the “candy tax”? The Legislature earmarked that increase for education in the spring of 2010, and voters repealed it by the fall, along with saying “Hell no!” to an income tax for the rich, and “Heavens, yes!” for the fifth time to the supermajority standard.

When the court struck down Initiative 695 (car tabs), the Legislature adopted it. Same with Initiative 747, which limited property tax increases to 1 percent per year. Still think we’re a tax-and-spend juggernaut? Then take a look at the data at the Washington Office of Financial Management’s website.

The best measure of “tax burden” is state and local taxes per $1,000 of personal income, because it considers the ability to pay. In 2010 (latest figures available), Washington was 35th in the nation on this score. Under “spending per $1,000 of personal income,” we’re 32nd.

Now, look at the trend. In the 1990s, Washington collected revenue at an above-average rate for the 50 states; over the past decade, we’ve been below average. The same goes for spending.

So what’s gone by the wayside? We’ve kicked more than 70,000 people off the Basic Health Plan, jacked up college tuition to ridiculous heights and, since 2008, whacked the state’s workforce by 11.2 percent, or about 8,200 people. That’s not all, but you get the idea.

And how did the Legislature reach this austerity nirvana? As I wrote in September:

“For 2009-’11, 46 percent of the solution came from spending cuts, 28 percent from federal funds (stimulus), 16 percent from revenue transfers and 10 percent from new revenue. So for every $4.60 they cut, they raised $1 in revenue. For 2011-’13, a total of 80 percent came from spending cuts, 11 percent from revenue transfers, 5 percent from new revenue and 3 percent from cash management. So for every $16 they cut, they raised a buck in new revenue.”

Nonetheless, some lawmakers say the court’s ruling will release the hounds of taxation. I doubt it. Voters still hold the leashes, and they’ve made it clear: The current path is what they want; so it’s what they’ll continue to get.

Until they can no longer stand it.

Facing the Elephant. In response to the supermajority ruling, Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business, said: “The state Supreme Court’s decision today is a disappointment and sends voters a clear message: your opinion doesn’t matter when it comes to tax decisions in Washington state. That’s a sharp rebuke of the voting public.”

On page 23 of the majority opinion: “Our holding is not a judgment on the wisdom of requiring a supermajority for passage of tax legislation. … Should the people and the legislature still wish to require a supermajority vote, they should do so through a constitutional amendment.”

Justices should not decide the constitutionality of issues based on popularity. They’re legal scholars, not pollsters, and this decision was long overdue. Back when Lisa Brown was the Senate majority leader, she caught a lot of grief for pushing this point, and it turns out she was right. But the court kept finding ways to kick this back to the Legislature.

After one of those rulings, Justice Tom Chambers called out his colleagues, saying, “There is an elephant in the courthouse. The majority knows the elephant is there. The majority maps out a route around the elephant.”

When finally approached, what did this pesky pachyderm have to say? “No bill shall become a law unless … a majority of the members elected to each house” vote in its favor.

It was there all along, in plain sight.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at garyc@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.

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