Sen. Benton to propose constitutional amendment on taxes

It would make requirement of a two-thirds legislative vote to raise taxes tougher to overturn

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said he will introduce a bill that would, through a constitutional amendment, protect the tax initiative voters approved this fall.

In the Nov. 6 general election, voters supported a requirement that all tax increases receive a two-thirds “yes” vote in the Legislature in order to pass. Despite similar rules being passed four other times by voters in the past two decades, the Legislature has been able to suspend those rules and pass taxes with a simple majority.

“The people have said ‘yes’ to requiring a two-thirds vote in Olympia on tax increases,” Benton said in a statement released Friday. “I want them to have the opportunity to make that requirement permanent, by placing it in the state constitution.”

To pass a bill that amends the constitution, two-thirds of state lawmakers in both houses must approve it, and a simple majority of the state’s voters must pass it. The state’s constitution has been amended 83 times.

State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said he doubts Benton’s proposal will get the votes it needs in the Legislature. The supermajority topic has been a divisive one, and passing Benton’s bill would not be a priority for the state House, which has a Democratic majority, Moeller said.

“We are going to be focusing on the budget,” Moeller said, adding that Benton’s bill “doesn’t create one single job. It doesn’t put a roof over anybody’s family. It doesn’t put food on the table. These are the kinds of things that people care about.”

Moeller also said if the Legislature is going to address taxes, it should work to reform the state’s tax system to make it less burdensome on lower-income citizens.

A companion bill to the one Benton is proposing has been pre-filed in the House. According to a survey conducted by the Washington Policy Center, a Seattle-based fiscally conservative think tank, 39 out of 98 House members responded “yes” to a question asking whether they would support a bill similar to the one Benton is proposing.

In the Senate, Republicans have a slight upper hand after gaining support from two philosophically conservative Democrats, giving the new coalition a 25-24 majority over the rest of the Democrats. Benton, who represents the 17th Legislative District, is second in command among Senate Republicans.

But, Moeller said, Benton’s proposal probably won’t “be well received within his own caucus, because it’s simply divisive. They only have a majority by the skin of their teeth, and by the allowance of two Democrats.”

In November, I-1185 passed by a statewide vote of nearly 64 percent, and in Clark County, 70 percent of voters approved the initiative. In 1993, 1998, 2007, and 2010, voters passed a supermajority initiative similar to I-1185.

Two years after an initiative is passed in Washington, legislators are allowed to change, repeal or suspend it. That has been the case several times when it comes to a supermajority requirement to raise taxes.

In 2011, House Democrats brought a lawsuit against the 2010 supermajority initiative, and a Seattle judge ruled in May of last year that the initiative violated the state constitution. That ruling was appealed to the state Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case on Sept. 25.

Benton said the supermajority issue should be cut and dried.

“By now, if you look at the latest election results, it’s safe to say the two-thirds tax-vote rule has become a nonpartisan issue,” Benton said in his statement. “The Legislature can ignore that, or it can put an amendment on the next November’s ballot and let the people have their say.”

The 105-day legislative session begins Jan. 14.


Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523; http://facebook.com/reportermathieu; http://twitter.com/col_politics; stevie.mathieu@columbian.com.