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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Amendment would end seesaw over raising taxes

The requirement that both chambers of the Legislature gain the support of two-thirds of its members to pass a tax increase was struck down last week by King County Superior Court Judge Bruce Heller. He ruled the initiative flouts the state constitution on two scores.

First, he says, the supermajority requirement for tax increases runs afoul of constitutional language calling for “a majority” to pass a bill. In addition, he contends that the provision calling for an automatic vote of the people on tax increases bypasses the constitution’s rules on referendums. Either the Legislature must vote to place referendums on the ballot or a sufficient number of valid signatures must be gathered.

As expected, the state is appealing the ruling.

The plain language of the founding document would seem to support Heller’s view, but we don’t pretend to be constitutional scholars. He notes that when the framers of the constitution wanted a supermajority, such as the 60 percent requirement for school bonds, they explicitly said so.

Voters have approved multiple initiatives that call for supermajorities to approve tax increases, and we’ve endorsed them. The Legislature has set them aside in the course of writing budgets.

This seemingly endless loop could continue if the state Supreme Court rules that a supermajority requirement is constitutionally sound. Or, it will end if the court upholds Heller’s ruling.

We urge the court to decide this quickly and definitively, because the next legislature must grapple with financing basic education, which, thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling, has become more urgent.

If the supermajority standard is struck down, then a bid to adopt a constitutional amendment is waiting in the wings. State Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, has already announced her intention to propose an amendment when lawmakers convene in January.

That option would appear to be the best, because it would settle this long-running battle once and for all. Plus, an amendment itself would need the support of two-thirds of both legislative chambers, which is fitting since it would bind future legislatures to the same standard for tax hikes.

We supported Initiative 1053, the latest supermajority requirement, but opponents make a fair point that it only needed a simple majority to pass. All other states with a supermajority requirement for tax hikes have amended their constitutions. So it can be done.

The “will of the people” has been invoked repeatedly since Heller’s ruling, but many other initiatives have also been set aside. The constitution allows this for good reason. It would be virtually impossible to govern based on the shifting whims of voters.

It shouldn’t be easy to raise taxes; nor should it be easy to tie the hands of future legislatures. A constitutional amendment would permanently shift the balance of power to a minority of lawmakers in one or both chambers on tax issues. That’s a big step, and one worth thinking through. The amendment process affords that time.

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