Court weighs constitutionality of tax rule

Voter-approved two-thirds majority for hikes linked to education edict

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OLYMPIA — A voter-approved law that makes it more difficult for the Legislature to raise taxes is now in the hands of the Washington Supreme Court, which is working to determine whether the rule is constitutional.

Justices heard arguments Tuesday from education advocates and the state over the law, which requires lawmakers to pass tax increases with a two-thirds majority instead of a simple majority.

Advocates say the state Constitution says lawmakers can raise taxes with a simple majority. They argue that the voter-approved rule has prevented the state from adequately funding education and other areas of government.

Washington's solicitor general, Maureen Hart, told justices that the measure was approved by a majority of voters. She argued in written briefings that the Constitution provides a minimum for the votes needed to pass laws — a simple majority — but doesn't prohibit rules from going above that.

Justice Tom Chambers responded to that argument by asking whether voters could approve rules requiring a 90 percent vote of lawmakers and the support of Santa Claus to raise taxes.

Voters most recently approved the supermajority rule two years ago, and initiative promoter Tim Eyman is asking the public to renew the measure in November.

Justices also explored whether it was appropriate for them to rule in this case.

The state argued that education advocates have not demonstrated actual harm from the law and that their claims on funding education are based on speculation. The education groups argued that the matter was of great public interest, so the court should make a call.

The arguments come as the Supreme Court has also told the Legislature that it is not adequately funding education. Observers say the state needs $3 billion to $4 billion to fulfill its constitutional promise to fully fund K-12 education — and one solution on the table is to increase taxes.

A lower court agreed with their assertion against the supermajority and the state Supreme Court has expedited its consideration of the two-thirds requirement.