Supermajority lawsuit splits lawmakers
Moeller says state constitution can’t be changed by initiative, but others disagree
Saturday, July 30, 2011
OLYMPIA — Local legislators stand divided over a lawsuit challenging last year’s voter-approved initiative that requires two-thirds approval for the Legislature to raise taxes and limit tax breaks.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit aim to overturn Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1053, which 64 percent of voters approved last fall.
Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, the lone local lawmaker to join suit, is among the dozen Democratic legislators who joined forces with the League of Education Voters and the Washington Education Association to bring the action to court. The lawsuit was filed Monday in King County Superior Court.
“Our paramount duty is to fund education,” Moeller said.
But the plaintiffs agree the initiative has made that job far too difficult.
“We’re basically hampered by the two-thirds majority rule of Initiative 1053,” Moeller said.
The suit pertains to a bill that proposed to close a tax break for banks and redirect the resulting roughly $83 million in new revenue toward K-3 education. The bill failed to meet Initiative 1053’s two-thirds approval requirement in the Legislature this year.
Moeller said for him, the issue goes beyond education funding to a larger constitutional question that remained unanswered for far too long: “Can you change the constitution by initiative?”
He says “no.”
Other local lawmakers don’t quite agree. Among them is Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center.
“In my read, it’s not unconstitutional,” Rivers said, “but I think anytime you get a bunch of lawyers together, they can find a way to make the words say what they want to say.”
Rivers has no plan to get involved in the suit, but she said she will stand by the initiative, since voters largely supported it last year.
“The people of this state have spoken their feelings about taxes,” she said. “It is not our job to disagree with them. It is our job to find a way to make it all work.”
Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, noted voters have shown in multiple elections that they want the supermajority rule to stay in place.
“It’s a clear message that the majority party in the House simply doesn’t get,” Orcutt said. “They continue to focus on tax increases instead of reforms at the state level. This approach takes us away from responsive, effective state government and represents the blueprint for business as usual in Olympia.”
Also staying on the sidelines is Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, who hopes to emphasize that the suit lacks an official backing from the Democratic Party and many other lawmakers. Pridemore said there is some credence to Moeller’s argument, but he is wary about whether a judge will concur.
“There’s room to argue that this could require a constitutional amendment,” he said. “That’s a strong argument, but it doesn’t mean the court will agree in this case.”
Pridemore said he will stand by the voters’ choice, despite his distaste for the initiative’s limits.
“I think trying to control spending by controlling revenues is a dangerous formula,” he said. “The state would be better served if it would cut expenses while cutting or capping revenues.”
Rivers sees the initiative as having a generally positive impact on the Legislature by clamping down on rampant spending.
“There is no reason— with the revenue trajectory that we have had— to have such a significant budget deficit to battle,” she said.
If the final ruling goes in favor of the plaintiffs, Rivers expects to face an upswing in state spending.
“I think we would see a return to spending money like drunken sailors,” she said.
But Moeller is confident that he and the other plaintiffs have a strong enough case to overturn the initiative.
“I think that the constitution is with us,” he said. “I think that we will prevail.”
Each of the three local lawmakers anticipate the case will be appealed several times, landing it in the state Supreme Court. However, what will happen there is hard for them to project.
“Just because a judge overturns an initiative does not overturn the will of the voters,” Pridemore said.