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June 25, 2022

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In Our View: Tightening Purse Strings

Voters leave no doubt about their desire to restrict tax increases

The Columbian

Although Initiative 1185 is not drawing as many exciting headlines across the country as ballot measures pertaining to marijuana, same-sex marriage and charter schools, it carries a greater financial meaning to taxpayers. I-1185 stipulates that a tax increase requires a two-thirds approval of both houses of the Legislature.We’re glad to report that I-1185 passed with flying colors, by 64.5 percent statewide as of Thursday afternoon, and by a whopping 70.2 percent in Clark County. Those approval rates are about 10 percentage points or more higher than the marijuana, same-sex marriage and charter schools initiatives. I-1185 passed in all 39 counties, and this marks the fifth time in two decades that voters have approved such a measure.

So, what could possibly be the problem? Some Democrats say none of those unambiguous approval ratings matter, because limiting the tax-hiking powers of legislators in such a way is unconstitutional. As evidence, they point to Article II, Section 22 of the state constitution, which states that no bill shall become a law unless “a majority of the members” of each house of the Legislature approve. Some Democrats — and state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, is one of the most outspoken — argue that a majority is therefore all that’s necessary to increase taxes.

But a clear and open-minded review of that passage reveals it to be, well, anything but clear. Here’s a second interpretation: The state constitution doesn’t say “only” a majority, and if voters add the two-thirds requirement, any bill passed under that new requirement would also meet constitutional muster of majority approval.

To strengthen that second interpretation, we submit Article II, Section I, which defines the role of the Legislature, “but 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 … .” Mighty powerful, it would seem.

Which argument is most persuasive? We won’t know until the state Supreme Court rules on a case currently under review. An opinion is expected soon. Logic leads us to believe the second interpretation above is more compelling, but we’re no legal experts. In the meantime, it helps to remember:

Washington is one of about 16 states that have some form of a supermajority approval for tax increases.

The power of such an initiative lasts only two years, after which only majority approval is required. Lawmakers have repeatedly jumped at almost any opportunity to suspend the two-thirds requirement. And in 2010, the Legislature increased taxes on candy, soda and bottled water, but those increases were shot down by voters later in the year (63.7 percent statewide, 77.2 percent in Clark County, and Initiative 1053 passed in all 39 counties).

This year’s I-1185 — like its four predecessors — does not prohibit tax increases; it only makes them more difficult. Judging by the inclination of many legislators to raise taxes in the worst of economic times, I-1185 is needed. Much more powerful than its need is the resounding and repeated voice of the voters.

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