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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Council mulls supermajority requirement

Proposed tax increases would need five votes under plan

It could soon get harder for Spokane city leaders to raise taxes.

The Spokane City Council on Monday will consider whether to ask voters if raising tax rates should require approval of at least five of the city’s seven council members.

Tax increases currently need four votes.

The proposal would affect property taxes, admissions taxes, gambling taxes, real estate excise taxes, utility taxes and business license fees and business and occupation taxes.

It would not affect parking tickets or other fines. It would not increase the number of votes the council would need to place a tax on the ballot for voters to decide.

City officials say it’s unclear if it would affect votes on parking fees. It would not affect the city’s license tab tax. That’s because even though those are decided by the same people who serve on City Council, they are acting as a separate Transportation Benefit District board when they consider tab taxes.

The vote also wouldn’t affect utility fees, even though one of the city’s primary ways of raising tax revenue in recent years has been by raising utility rates. Since Spokane’s utility tax is 20 percent, the city can greatly increase utility tax revenue by raising the underlying utility fees.

Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin, who is sponsoring the amendment, said the idea for the proposal came during a lunch with a representative of the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank. It’s based on a proposal approved in November by voters in Pierce County.

She stressed, however, that the concept isn’t new. Washington voters have voted five times to require two-thirds votes in the state Legislature to raise taxes.

The requirement, which is supported by Mayor David Condon, would mean greater consensus would be needed on the City Council to raise taxes, she said.

McLaughlin’s plan is almost certain to make the ballot. At least two council members who oppose the concept, Council President Ben Stuckart and Councilwoman Amber Waldref, say they’ll likely agree to let voters decide.

Waldref said she opposes the idea because it bucks the traditional way of governing: majority rules. But she said she isn’t too worried about it because it’s not likely to have much of an effect. The city already is capped at raising property taxes by 1 percent a year; some city taxes already are maxed out by law, like hotel taxes. The utility tax, among the highest in the state, is maxed out politically, and the idea of a city business and occupation tax has faced fierce opposition whenever it has emerged.

Waldref said it’s unfair to require supermajority votes to raise taxes while only 4-3 votes are needed to exempt certain taxpayers from paying taxes, thus increasing the tax burden on others. Earlier this year, for instance, the council decided to maintain tax subsidies on those who build apartments or condos in certain parts of the city.

City Councilman Mike Fagan, who has fought for the two-thirds requirement on the Legislature, said supermajority votes mean government has to be more innovative before raising taxes.

“Tax increases should be the last resort,” he said.

But former City Councilman Steve Eugster, who crafted the current City Charter, approved by voters in 1999, opposes the stronger requirement for taxes.

“It’s a bad idea,” Eugster said. “You can lock up government pretty easily with that extra vote.”