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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Supermajority for taxes in Legislature unconstitutional

OLYMPIA — Requiring the Legislature to approve tax increases by a super-majority violates the state Constitution if it’s done by an initiative, Washington’s highest court said this morning. The state Supreme Court, in a 6-3 ruling, said it wasn’t passing judgment on the wisdom of requiring a two-thirds vote for the Legislature to pass a tax increase. That’s up to the Legislature and the people. “Should the people and the Legislature still wish to require a super-majority vote for tax legislation, they must do so through constitutional amendment, not through legislation,” the court ruled. The two-thirds majority requirement has been approved five times by voters through initiative or referendum. But laws enacted by the voters are statutes, and such a change requires something more than a majority vote at the ballot box or in the two chambers of the Legislature. It requires the tougher standard of an amendment: two-thirds approval in both chambers, followed by a simple majority at the ballot box. A coalition of lawmakers and education groups sued the state over the issue, and a King County judge decided last spring that the state constitution requires only a simple majority to pass tax proposals. The Supreme Court agreed to expedite its consideration. “This ruling is a huge win for kids and schools,” said Chris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education Voters, one of the lead plaintiffs. “Washington schools need to be fully funded in order to ensure that all kids reach their potential. This ruling, combined with the recent McCleary decision, will help ensure that our kids have all the resources they need to get an excellent education.” Gov. Jay Inslee said the court had done the right thing. State Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, said the court had opened the floodgates of taxation with its ruling. The chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Operations Committee has already proposed a constitutional amendment to make the two-thirds majority permanent. “This is a seminal point in our history,” she said, noting that the people in every county have already shown their support for a two-thirds tax rule. To pass a constitutional amendment, the Legislature must approve the measure by a two-thirds majority and then it goes to the people for a simple majority vote. The two-thirds majority rule has been approved in a series of initiatives pushed by activist Tim Eyman. Voters most recently approved the supermajority rule last November. In a statement reacting to the court decision, Eyman wrote that the voters were more enthusiastic about his most recent tax initiative than they were about the new governor. He said he agreed with a dissent by Justice Jim Johnson that “democracy will carry the day,” and the voters will not be denied their rights.
The Associated Press contributed to this report