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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Amendment on tax supermajorities fails in Senate

OLYMPIA – A proposed constitutional amendment that would have required the Legislature to approve tax increases with two-thirds majorities failed Friday when the Senate failed to muster the two-thirds majority such a change needs.

After nearly two hours of heated debate Friday morning, where opponents invoked the Founding Fathers and supporters called for giving voters what they want, the Senate vote 26-23 on Senate Joint Resolution 8211. It needed at least 33 yes votes to go to the House, where another supermajority vote would have been required to send it to the ballot.

“We have the opportunity to give the people what they want,” Sen. Pam Roach, R-Sumner, the sponsor of the proposal, said. “They want to be able to keep more of their taxes.”

Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said the nation’s Founding Fathers considered requiring a supermajority to pass legislation on policy, but rejected it after it was a failure in the Articles of Confederation. By putting it in place in Washington, 17 senators could have “veto power” over the other 130 members of the Legislature.

Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, countered that the nation was founded by people who angry over taxes and a lack of representation.

Republicans argued that a supermajority requirement would force compromise, generating bipartisan legislation like last year’s transportation package, which raises gasoline taxes by 11.9 cents and passed the Senate with a supermajority.

“We can life with two-thirds,” Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said. “A lot of people are still high-fiving each other” over the transportation package.

But Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, countered that the transportation package did not pass the House with a supermajority, so that major piece of legislation would have failed.

Despite the two-hour debate, the fate of the proposed amendment was never in doubt. Early in the process, Democrats tried several times to amend it, trying to carve out exceptions for reducing or closing tax exemptions, which under the proposal would qualify as a tax increase. That should be possible with a simple majority, they argued. Without it, the proposal should be called the Corporate Loophole Retention Act, Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, said.

Carlyle also tried to add a line to the constitutional amendment that would make the supermajority expire after 10 years. Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, asked if that would prompt Carlyle to vote for it; Carlyle said no.

For each proposed change, Roach countered the Senate that “compounds a very straight-forward issue that’s before us. It’s not part of the people’s initiative.”

All amendments that were put to a vote failed on 23-26 tallies. No one changed sides in the final vote; those who previously voted no simply switched to yes, and vice versa.

Voters have approved various initiatives that include a two-thirds majority for taxes over the last 23 years. But in 2013, the state Supreme Court ruled that such a change can only happen through an amendment to the State Constitution. Last year, voters approved another ballot measure from initiative activist Tim Eyman, which required the Legislature to send a tax supermajority to voters this fall or face a 1 cent per dollar cut to the state sales tax.

That initiative has four different problems that make it unconstitutional, and therefor unenforceable, a King County Superior Court judge ruled last month. The State Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on an appeal to that ruling in March.