The initiative atop the state ballot offers Washington voters another shot at one of the most familiar debates in recent state politics, but with a twist.
One side says legislators are such tax-happy spendthrifts that the only way to protect ourselves is by requiring them to pass any increase in taxes with a two-thirds supermajority.
The other side says such a restriction is so anti-democratic that a handful of legislators could block any major fiscal issue.
Voters who haven’t heard this debate before are either new to Washington or haven’t paid attention to their general election ballots for more than a decade. Voters who recognize the concept and wonder why it’s back haven’t kept up with the complicated political and legal history of perennial initiative sponsor Tim Eyman’s favorite ballot measure.
The twist this year is that if Initiative 1366 passes and withstands a certain court challenge, it would give the Legislature a choice: Send voters a constitutional amendment locking supermajority approval for taxes into the constitution, or see the state sales tax cut by more than $1 billion per year. It’s a simple choice, say supporters; to opponents, it’s blackmail.
Previous supermajority provisions were amended back to simple majorities after enough time elapsed that legislators could muster the votes to make the change. But opponents always questioned whether a supermajority provision is constitutional.
Two years ago, the state Supreme Court said it wasn’t. Such a change to the way the state was set up in 1889 requires a constitutional amendment to change a requirement that most laws are passed with a simple majority in each chamber, the court said. Unfortunately for Eyman and his well-developed initiative operation Voters Want More Choices, which includes longtime partners Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan and Fagan’s father, Jack, a constitutional amendment can’t start with an initiative. It must start in the Legislature, where it must get two-thirds approval in both chambers before being placed before voters on a general election ballot.
Such an amendment has been proposed by legislative allies of Eyman who are fans of the supermajority, but the Legislature as a whole generally gave them little attention. I-1366 attempts to force the Legislature not only to consider, but also to pass such an amendment by next April, sending it to the voters in November 2016; if not, the initiative calls for the state sales tax to be reduced to 5.5 percent from the current 6.5 percent, a reduction of about $1.3 billion in tax revenue per year.
Opponents say that kind of choice is unconstitutional, but their efforts to keep I-1366 off the ballot failed. A King County Superior Court judge said it likely violates the constitution in several ways, including using the threat of a sales tax cut to force legislators to propose the amendment, with wording straight from the initiative that can’t be changed. But Judge Dean Lum said that’s not enough to keep it from the ballot. The state Supreme Court agreed, without comment, but retained jurisdiction of the case, which would be back if I-1366 passes.
I-1366 has some familiar friends and foes. Supporting Eyman are the National Federation of Independent Business and the state Republican Party, along with the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. Opponents include the League of Women Voters, the state Democratic Party, the Spokane City Council and several other groups.
The yes campaign raised $1.6 million and spent about $1.5 million so far, most of it to pay people to gather signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot, along with some $250,000 to repay a second mortgage Eyman took on his home, a tactic he sometimes uses to raise money early in the campaign. But unlike previous years, the campaign has a large expense – some $150,000 for legal fees.
In the past month, the Public Disclosure Commission has raised questions about an arrangement Eyman allegedly had with Citizen Solutions in which his private company received a portion of the money the campaign organization paid for signatures collected for I-1185, the most recent previous supermajority measure. Eyman called it a business arrangement, but the PDC said the movement of money back and forth violated campaign finance laws and asked the state attorney general’s office to prosecute.
That controversy doesn’t directly involve this year’s initiative, but it has prompted Eyman to limit his appearances at debates and insist in interviews he will only talk about I-1366. It hasn’t, however, stopped his regular updates to supporters with warnings about the insatiable appetite of state officials for higher taxes in emails that double as requests for campaign contributions.
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