In Our View: Time to Rescue Supermajority

Five times voters have approved it, and court ruling can't change that record



After Thursday’s ruling by the Washington Supreme Court, the people now must amend the state constitution in order to require a two-thirds legislative approval for tax increases. So be it. Let that process begin.We’re not big believers in changing the state constitution, but when an ill-advised court ruling forces the hand of the people who have consistently asked for this provision, we are left no choice. After the 6-3 ruling by the state’s high court, state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, correctly complained that Washingtonians had seen “one majority toss out what another majority has approved time after time.” And that other majority is much more inclusive than any Supreme Court consensus. It’s the voters, who five times have passed supermajority requirements for tax increases. The most recent was convincingly settled last November when Initiative 1185 was approved by 63.9 percent of voters statewide, and by 70.3 percent in Clark County.

Writing for the court majority, Justice Susan Owens said Thursday’s ruling was “not a judgment on the wisdom of requiring a supermajority for the passage of tax legislation,” and that if voters want such a restriction on tax increases (obviously, they do), then “they must do so through constitutional amendment, not through legislation.”

Fine. Let’s follow the state Supreme Court’s instructions, as laborious and time-consuming as that path will be. Either Benton’s Senate Joint Resolution 8200 or state Sen. Pam Roach’s Senate Joint Resolution 8205 would do the trick.

The great irony in this issue is that the very instrument (the supermajority) that voters have happily and repeatedly used to make increasing taxes so difficult … now becomes the people’s great challenge. To amend the state constitution requires two-thirds approval in each chamber of the Legislature, then majority approval by the people.

Then again, so high a bar might not be as difficult to clear as some people suspect, for at least two strong reasons. First, any legislator who would vote against SJR 8200 or SJR 8205 will be forced to explain why he or she went against the overwhelming consensus of the electorate. Indeed, I-1185 passed in all 39 counties and in 44 of the state’s 49 legislative districts. Ignoring such a powerful message from the voters would be difficult for any elected official to rationalize. High political costs could be paid. Second, any legislator who voted against either measure would have to explain why he or she is not influenced by Article 2, Sec. 1 of the state constitution, which stipulates that “the people reserve to themselves the power to propose bills, laws and to enact or reject the same at the polls, independent of the Legislature.”

One intriguing sidebar in this drama is the role of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee. Many fellow Democrats are not fond of his campaign promise to veto tax increases. But many Republicans are frowning at the way he celebrated Thursday’s court ruling, while also complaining that the supermajority requirement “gave a legislative majority the power to squelch ideas even when those ideas had majority support.” We see it differently, not as any legislative majority but as an overwhelming majority of voters who support this constraint on tax increases.

More than a dozen states have enacted similar measures. Washington should, too. As House Republican budget leader Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, pointed out: “While (Thursday’s) ruling impacts the law of the land, it doesn’t change the will of the people.”