The Capitol Record

State Supreme Court strikes down ‘supermajority’ vote for raising taxes

The State Supreme Court has struck down an initiative passed by voters that requires a two-thirds “supermajority” vote of the Legislature in order to raise taxes.

In a 6-3 decision issued on Thursday, the court said the requirement violates the state constitution. The court said the constitution makes clear a bill becomes law when it is passed by a simple majority of the Legislature.

In the majority opinion, the court wrote:

Our holding today is not a judgment on the wisdom of requiring a supermajority for the passage of tax legislation. Such judgment is left to the legislative branch of our government  Should the people and the legislature still wish to require a supermajority vote for tax legislation, they must do so through  constitutional amendment, not through legislation. 

Thursday’s decision comes after a group of education advocates and state lawmakers brought a lawsuit against the 2010 two-thirds initiative. After a Seattle judge ruled the initiative violated the state constitution, it was appealed to the state Supreme Court. The court heard oral arguments in September.

Voters have passed initiatives requiring a two-thirds “supermajority” vote of the Legislature in order to raise taxes several times over the last decade, including Initiative 1185 last November.  The Legislature has been able to suspend those rules and pass taxes with a simple majority.

Gov. Jay Inslee released a statement saying the state Supreme Court “did the right thing” in issuing the ruling.

“The supermajority requirement gave a legislative minority the power to squelch ideas even when those ideas had majority support. That is inconsistent with our fundamental form of representative democracy,” Inslee said.

Rep. Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma) was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. She said at a press conference Thursday that the ruling gives the state more options to fund education, citing an idea last year that would have funded all-day kindergarten by ending a tax break for out-of-state shoppers.

“We weren’t able to do that because it required a two-thirds majority. So I think it definitely puts a lot of those things on the table — a real discussion,” Jinkins said.

During a press conference called by Senate Republicans, Sen. Don Benton (R-Vancouver) said the voters had made their position clear at the poll five times and the court’s decision overruled their will.

“Their messages is they don’t trust their legislators to keep taxes in check with a simple majority. They want to make darn sure that it is absolutely the last resort,” he said. “The citizens want a two-thirds majority on taxes increases because they want this legislature to look at other options other than the easiest one.”

Republican lawmakers have introduced a bill in recent weeks that would amend the state constitution to make the two-thirds majority requirement permanent. Any amendment to the constitution would itself require a two-thirds vote of both houses.

Sen. Benton said the bill has the support of all 25 members of the Senate Majority caucus, which includes two Democrats. It passed out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday, and Benton said he expects it to get a floor vote within a few days.

“We are absolutely committed. The question is, do we have eight Democrats on the other side that will support the will of their citizens? That’s the issue facing the state Senate,” Benton said.

A constitutional amendment is unlikely to pass in the Democratic-controlled House. Rep. Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle) said Thursday he would be open to having a “rich discussion” about putting some limitations on raising taxes, but opposes a constitutional amendment.

Rep. Gary Alexander (R-Olympia), the House Republican budget writer, called the ruling “extremely unfortunate” for the state’s taxpayers.

“I urge the majority party in the House to join with House Republicans to adopt a new constitutional amendment so that we can, once and for all, put this issue to rest and get on with responsible governing,” he said in a news release.

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