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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Court hears tax-increase rule

Brown says majority is held hostage

State Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, talks to reporters on the steps of the state Supreme Court in Olympia after a hearing on her challenge to a state law requiring a supermajority to increase taxes.  (Richard Roesler / The Spokesman-Review)
Richard Roesler Staff writer

OLYMPIA – Seven months after watching Washington Senate Democrats overruled when they tried to renew a small liquor tax, Sen. Lisa Brown on Tuesday went to the state Supreme Court with a lawsuit that would make raising taxes easier.

At issue is the validity of a long-standing and repeatedly ignored requirement that tax hikes require a two-thirds vote of state lawmakers. Before a seemingly skeptical high court Tuesday, Brown’s attorneys argued it’s flatly unconstitutional.

Brown’s opponents, including initiative promoter Tim Eyman, say she’s just trying to lay the groundwork for tax increases next year to help balance a projected shortfall of nearly $3 billion.

“Absolutely not,” Brown said Tuesday, standing on the Supreme Court steps. She said she’s simply trying to get an answer to a long-standing question hanging over the statehouse. If a “supermajority” is required to increase taxes, she says, the state is held hostage to minority rule.

“What if it were property rights? What if it were civil rights” instead of taxes, she said. So, more than a decade after voters first launched the two-thirds requirement with Initiative 601, she’s asking the court to overturn it.

Brown’s lawsuit began in February, when a majority of the state Senate voted for a bill reinstating a lapsed liquor tax to pay for police patrols and alcohol treatment.

Not good enough, ruled Lt. Gov. Brad Owen. He cited the two-thirds requirement, which lawmakers and voters have repeatedly reaffirmed, most recently in last year’s I-960.

The Senate could have overruled Owen or suspended the two-thirds requirement, as they repeatedly have in recent years. Instead, Brown decided to try to settle the issue in court.

On Tuesday, however, several justices seemed leery of wading into the fray.

“The court plunging headfirst into the legislative process, that’s really a concern that I have,” said Justice Barbara Madsen. For someone turning to the court, she said, Brown “seems to have a lot of tools in her pocket” to fix the problem herself.

“So there was a remedy there,” observed Chief Justice Gerry Alexander. “If the majority (of lawmakers) felt sufficiently disturbed by the ruling, they could overrule it.”

But some justices were uneasy. What if someone passed an initiative saying raising taxes takes a 90 percent vote, asked Justice Debra Stephens. Or what if tax votes only took effect if a senator from Marysville voted for them?

After the hearing, Brown said that overruling Owen or suspending the requirement are not as politically easy as they might sound. And she repeatedly denied that the issue is related to any potential tax hike next year.

“This is very much a long-term question” that will keep arising until the high court rules on it, she said. “… I don’t want to be logjammed by a minority of legislators.

“I think majority rule is pretty good,” she said, “and if my constituents don’t like it, they can vote me out of office” or pass an initiative.

Eyman was among those sitting on the sidelines in the courtroom Tuesday.

“I think it went very well for the taxpayers,” he said after the hearing. He noted that Brown herself has voted for the two-thirds rule as a lawmaker. “She’s basically suing herself.”

Eyman argues that the law makes sense.

“Taking more of the people’s money should be tougher than passing any other bill,” he said.

No ruling is expected for months.