Benton: put two-thirds tax-hike rule in Constitution

Republican senator says measure would enforce 'will of people'

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photoState Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver

OLYMPIA -- Sen. Don Benton's bill to enshrine the supermajority tax rule in the state Constitution received a public hearing Thursday, along with two similar proposals.

The bill introduced by Benton, R-Vancouver, is part of a Republican effort to guarantee that any tax-raising bills must be approved by at least two-thirds of legislators in both state houses. The state Constitution only requires a simple majority to raise taxes, and voters approved a supermajority rule for taxes this fall, but Republicans worry that rule could be overturned in court.

Benton described his proposed constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 8200, as enforcing "the will of the people."

Washington citizens have successfully passed five initiatives requiring a two-thirds majority to raise taxes over the past 20 years, said Jason Mercier, director of the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank. Each of the past initiatives have been struck down by the courts or dismantled by the Legislature, said Mercier, who testified in favor of Benton's bill.

"We have seen consistent support from the voters on this issue," Mercier said.

Benton said he feels insulted that elected officials continually "slap down the will of the people. … I'm voted here to represent the people, not to think for them."

Opponents of Benton's proposal said the supermajority rule would tie the Legislature's hands as it faces tough budget decisions.

"It allows essentially 17 legislators to block something from moving forward," said Nick Federici, speaking on behalf of the Our Economic Future Coalition. "A two-thirds majority delegates power to a minority. … A two-thirds majority (requirement) makes it virtually impossible to use revenue as a tool to solve problems."

The $4 billion that the state needs to invest in K-12 education in the next few years could be hard to come by with a two-thirds requirement on tax increases, added Remy Trupin, executive director for the Washington State Budget and Policy Center, a liberal think tank.

"These restrictions will harm the ability of policymakers to make the best decisions about the state's finances and investments," Trupin said.

The Senate Government Operations Committee also heard public testimony on Thursday on two similar ideas to Benton's. One was nearly identical; the other would apply to fee increases as well as tax increases.

The committee is chaired by Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, who seemed supportive of Benton's bill. Sens. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and John Braun, R-Centralia, also serve on that committee.

If Benton's proposal passes in the Senate, it will likely face opposition in the House, which has a Democratic majority. The House recently rejected a rules amendment that would require a two-thirds majority vote on tax increases in that chamber.