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Tuesday, February 18, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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GOP rule makes passage of new taxes tougher

Gov. Jay Inslee walks through the Capitol rotunda in Olympia before the start of the legislative session Monday. (Associated Press)
Gov. Jay Inslee walks through the Capitol rotunda in Olympia before the start of the legislative session Monday. (Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – Any new tax in Washington will require support from at least two-thirds of the Senate under a rule change Republicans pushed through the chamber in the early hours of the 2015 session.

The change was part of partisan dueling on the opening day of the session. Republicans lost a vote on the position of Senate president pro tem when two members defected to the Democrats, but held together and passed a potentially more consequential rule change.

Previously, a simple majority was all that was needed to move a bill to its final reading and vote. Under the new rule, it will take a supermajority – at least 32 of 49 votes – if the bill includes a new tax that the state has never imposed, such as a capital gains or income tax. Raising an existing tax or changing a tax loophole won’t require that supermajority.

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, argued Republicans don’t need such a rule because they have a majority in the chamber and can keep any bill from coming up at any time. “This set of rules is a recipe for gridlock,” he said.

But Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, one of the sponsors of the change, said voters have approved similar restrictions by initiative five times. But last year the state Supreme Court ruled a law requiring tax bills to pass with supermajorities would require a constitutional amendment.

The rule requires the supermajority in the middle of the Senate process. The final vote can still pass on a simple majority, but without the supermajority at a step known as “second reading” it won’t reach that final vote.

“The Supreme Court can make their rules in their chamber. We make our rules here,” Baumgartner said.

Democrats argued it violates the constitution, which calls for bills to be approved by a simple majority. They tried to amend the new rules to require that any such change for a supermajority be approved by the same supermajority Republicans were seeking for taxes. It failed on a voice vote.

Despite the rule change, Baumgartner predicted the state’s final budget will be “a bipartisan, compromise budget” similar to last year’s, which passed 48-1. But that budget didn’t have the stresses of additional funding for the Supreme Court’s orders to improve public schools, or the initiative voters passed in November to reduce the number of students in classes, said Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam. 

The rule is less restrictive than initiatives proposed by Tim Eyman that voters have passed. Those required supermajorities for increases to existing taxes or changes in tax breaks. Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, said the rule change only applies to instituting taxes the state doesn’t currently have. (Editor’s note: Earlier versions of this stoy said the initiatives also applied to fees, but not all ballot measures required supermajorities for fee increases.)

But it would cover at least one of the proposals Gov. Jay Inslee has made to help cover improvements he’s suggesting to public schools, other state programs, and raises to teachers and state employees. Inslee wants a capital gains tax on families at the top 1 percent of incomes.

In an interview on TVW a few minutes before the session started, Inslee called the rule undemocratic because it thwarts majority rule and “empowers people on the ideological fringes.”

Before voting on the rules, senators sparred over the election of the chamber’s president pro tem, a position that most days is ceremonial but puts that person in charge of the Senate when the lieutenant governor is gone. Republicans wanted to re-elect Sen.Tim Sheldon, the sole Democrat who meets with them to form the Majority Coalition Caucus, to the post he held for the last two years. Democrats, however, nominated Sen. Pam Roach, an Auburn Republican with a reputation as a maverick in the GOP Caucus.

Republicans then nominated Karen Fraser, an Olympia Democrat, for the post, hoping to split Democrats in a three-way vote. But Democrats held firm for Roach, who collected two Republican votes, her own and Sen. Don Benton, of Vancouver, a frequent ally of Roach on key issues. Final tally: Roach 25, Sheldon 24.

Those votes provided some variety to the standard opening day events. The House swore in its 98 members en masse before majority Democrats re-elected Rep. Frank Chopp, of Seattle, the House speaker, a job he has held or shared since 1999.

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