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News / Northwest

State’s voters will weigh in on anti-tax measure

Constitutionality questioned, but initiative’s sponsor persists

By RACHEL LA CORTE, Associated Press
Published: October 26, 2015, 9:41am

OLYMPIA — There has been no shortage of efforts to limit Washington state lawmakers’ ability to raise taxes over the years, both legislatively and on the ballot. The latest ballot measure before voters gives lawmakers a choice: send a constitutional amendment to voters that would reinstate a two-thirds legislative majority requirement to raise taxes or else see a cut in the state sales tax.

Initiative 1366 would decrease the 6.5-percent state sales tax to 5.5 percent unless the Legislature approves a constitutional amendment before April 15 that voters would weigh in on later that year. Currently, taxes can be raised through a simple-majority vote of the Legislature.

Opponents of the measure call it legislative blackmail, and say it will likely not pass constitutional muster if approved by voters. But initiative sponsor Tim Eyman, who has a long history of anti-tax efforts, insists he’s merely seeking to end the “tug of war on this policy.” Previous voter-approved initiatives sponsored by Eyman required a supermajority vote on taxes, but the state Supreme Court struck that requirement down in 2013, saying it was unconstitutional.

“The voters keep voting for it, and the Legislature and the courts say we don’t like these things,” Eyman said. The initiative  “has the potential to protect every taxpayer forever from tax increases from Olympia.”

Any such amendment would face a daunting road to passage, given that many Democrats oppose a two-thirds rule and in order for a constitutional amendment to make it to the ballot, two thirds of the Legislature must approve it. Republicans control the Senate, but with a 26-23 majority don’t have the votes required to pass such a measure. Democrats currently control the House with a 51-47 majority.

That means the more likely outcome if the initiative passes is that the state will see a dip in revenues from a cut in the state sales tax, Democratic Sen. David Frockt said.

Frockt, who had been a plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking to keep the measure off the ballot, said that with lawmakers facing court-ordered requirements on things like education funding, the risk of losing state revenue would be devastating.

“At a time when we need to increase our funding of K-12, that would be the wrong thing to,” he said, warning that deep budget cuts would be necessary. “I don’t know where we’d get the money.”

The state Office of Financial Management has estimated that the initiative would reduce revenue to the state budget by $8 billion through the middle of 2021, if its tax-cut element becomes law.

While the state Supreme Court ultimately refused to block the measure from the ballot, the justices said that they would retain the appeal for a later decision on the merits.

Meanwhile, Eyman is facing campaign finance allegations after state investigators last month accused him of violating Washington election law by misspending campaign funds from a previous measure three years ago, and diverting $170,000 for his personal use. The case has been referred to the state attorney general, who has not yet said what, if any action, the office will take. It’s not the first time Eyman has faced accusations of secretly diverting funds. A 2002 case resulted in Eyman paying more than $50,000 in penalties in fees and being prohibited from serving as a campaign treasurer.

Eyman has refused to discuss the most recent allegations, saying that he is focused on the initiative and that voters should “evaluate the initiatives on their merits.”

Recent polling showed split support from voters. Independent pollster Stuart Elway found support for Initiative 1366 has seen a dip in support, dropping from 49 percent in July to 42 percent in October. According to the survey, 42 percent are opposed to the measure, while 16 percent are undecided.