Callaghan: Legislators gamble on supermajority

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

Published:

 

Sometimes during the dance of legislation, the partners change positions. Sometimes it takes time, as when Democrats and Republicans nationally exchanged the banner as the party of the South.

Sometimes it takes just an instant, as when Democrats and Republicans in Olympia changed places in the conversation about so-called supermajorities.

Supermajorities are a type of legislative superhero doing battle with the simple majority. Supermajorities are laws or constitutional provisions that require a larger-than-majority vote to pass certain types of legislation — sometimes with 60 percent, sometimes with two-thirds. The supermajority that is discussed most often is the one imposed several times by initiative — the two-thirds vote required for the Legislature to pass tax increases without sending them to voters. Democrats generally think such a requirement cannot be imposed by initiative or even by the Legislature itself, but must be done with an amendment to the state constitution. Such an amendment, in keeping with our theme of the day, must first get a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate and then a simple majority vote of the people.

At least three times, the state Supreme Court has been asked to rule on this issue, to effectively toss out the initiatives that established the higher vote count. Three times, the court has decided not to decide, although a fourth attempt is moving very slowly toward the justices.

Some Democrats hang their hats on the process issue, saying that tax supermajorities are a constitutional issue. But most will also say such a supermajority is simply a bad idea because it reduces the Legislature’s flexibility in responding to budget crises and gives veto power to a political minority. Republicans, generally at least, are thrilled to have Democrats say such things because, constitutional or not, the supermajority for tax hikes is very popular with state voters. To summarize: Democrats don’t think supermajorities are a good idea, and Republicans think supermajorities are a pretty neat deal.

Except when they don’t.

Expansion at issue

Earlier this month, House Republicans came out with their plan for new state revenue. General tax hikes such as the half-cent sales tax proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire are still out. But how about if we give more Washington residents the opportunity to voluntarily deposit money in the accounts of private mini-casino owners via nearly 8,000 new faux slot machines? And how about those owners, in turn, send a finder’s fee to the state totalling more than $150 million a year?

Now comes the irony. Democrats argue the state constitution requires a supermajority vote to expand gambling. That’s the state Supreme Court’s interpretation of a 1972 constitutional amendment that banned lotteries “except as specifically authorized upon the affirmative vote of sixty percent of the members of each house of the legislature.” Lotteries, the court has said, include nearly any form of gambling as long as it has the three magic components — consideration (a bet), chance and a prize.

Republicans take their 180-degree spin on the issue by saying that only a simple majority is needed because the addition of all those gambling machines to more than 60 new casinos across the state isn’t really an expansion of gambling. That is probably a wishful interpretation given the past rulings of Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, that even expanding the hours or locations of existing forms of gambling requires a 60 percent vote because it “would permit increased occurrences of gambling activity.”

It may all be academic, because Democrats who control the House and Senate are unlikely to allow a slot machine vote at all. If it does reach the floor, however, I can hardly wait for the Democratic speeches defending the supermajority concept (albeit one passed by constitutional amendment, not initiative) and counter-speeches by Republicans saying such a thing isn’t really a good idea.