Supermajority tax-rule decision splits local legislators, officials

By Stevie Mathieu and Susan Parrish

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Senate panel backs constitutional amendment for supermajority

State Supreme Court strikes down two-thirds legislative vote for raising taxes

Some educators and Democratic legislators from Clark County applauded the state Supreme Court's decision Thursday that ruled a two-thirds voting requirement to raise taxes in the Legislature is unconstitutional.

Republican legislators from Clark County, on the other hand, chastised the decision.

"I say shame on those judges," Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, said. "Why do we even have an initiative process for citizens to stand up and voice their concerns?"

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said he was glad that the Supreme Court has settled the debate on the rule. The supermajority tax rule has been approved by voters many times but dismantled by the Legislature or lower courts.

"The constitutional legality of the supermajority has gone unresolved for many years, and I'm really pleased that the court has finally settled the issue," said Moeller, who was involved in bringing the case to the Supreme Court.

Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver; Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver; and Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said they would not support amending the constitution to require a two-thirds vote of approval by legislators to raise taxes.

The supermajority rule "prevents you from doing any kind of meaningful tax reform, including getting rid of (outdated tax) loopholes," Wylie said. It also allows a minority in the Legislature to rule over the rest when it comes to raising revenue for important services, such as education, she said.

Wylie referenced a proposal from a couple years ago that aimed to close a tax loophole for out-of-state banks and redirect those savings into the state's all-day kindergarten program. That legislation failed because it didn't receive the required a two-thirds vote of approval in the Legislature.

Cleveland said she was pleased by the court decision on Thursday "because I've always believed that efforts to require a two-thirds majority really reverses the fundamental tenent of our democracy." Our nation's founders left Europe because they were tired of "minority rule by a privileged minority," she added.

Stonier said she felt the supermajority requirement was unconstitutional, but she still has no plans of voting for tax increases. That's not what her constituents want, she said.

Constitutional amendment

Many Republicans expressed their support on Thursday to amend the state constitution to allow the supermajority tax rule. Multiple lawmakers have proposed such legislation this session, including Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, and Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.

"I am shocked and disappointed to see one majority toss out what another majority has approved time after time," Benton said of the court decision.

Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, said voters in his legislative district, the 18th, approved the latest super-majority tax measure, Initiative 1185, by 71 percent.

"Washingtonians have supported a supermajority, or two-thirds, vote to pass tax increases five times," Vick said in a statement. "The constant threat of new and higher taxes creates instability for consumers and businesses and is hurting our economy."

Vick, Pike, Benton, Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, all said on Thursday that they would support amending the constitution to require a two-thirds vote in the Legislature before raising taxes.

"We need to enshrine this in our constitution so they'll stop striking it down," Pike said.

Amending the state constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and a simple-majority vote of the people to pass. Benton said passing the amendment would truly settle the issue once and for all.

Moeller said he would only consider amending the constitution in that way if the state's tax system was overhauled to make sure every citizen pays a fair share. The state's revenue system, which relies heavily on sales tax, reacts to the dips and peaks in the economy, and it unfairly burdens low- and middle-class citizens, he said.

"We have the most regressive tax system in the nation," Moeller said. Legislators should make sure that "those who can afford it the least don't pay the most."

Impact on education

More than a year ago, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state is not amply funding basic education under the Washington Constitution, ordering the Legislature to fulfill those obligations by 2018. Many legislators said it would be much more challenging to increase funding for basic education while operating under a supermajority rule in the Legislature.

Steve Webb, superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools, echoed that idea, adding: "It's time for the state to fulfill its constitutional paramount duty by fully funding K-12 education."

John Deeder, superintendent of Evergreen Public Schools, agrees with the state Supreme Court's ruling.

"I think it's a fair decision from the perspective that we live in a democracy," said Deeder, who is at the helm of the largest school district in Clark County. "I think anything more than a simple majority is tipping the scales to one side too heavily."

But Shonny Bria, superintendent of Battle Ground Public Schools, had a different opinion.

"Most of Clark County voters were supportive of the two-thirds requirement that the Legislature had to agree on any tax increase. That was the will of our voters. I respect that," Bria said. "Now that the Supreme Court has overruled this law, we'll have to wait and see how it plays out in the Legislature."


Lucas Wiseman of The Columbian/Murrow News Service contributed to this story.