In November the people of Washington will vote on Initiative 1185. The measure would re-affirm the nearly 20-year old state law requiring that tax increases pass with a two-thirds vote in the Legislature or receive voter approval.
If voting on this requirement feels like déjà vu all over again that’s because it is.
Voters in Washington have enacted or confirmed the two-thirds vote requirement four times, in 1993, 1998, 2007 and 2010.
Requiring a supermajority vote in the legislature to increase taxes is not unique to our state. Eighteen states (counting Washington) have some form of supermajority vote requirement for tax increases, including Oregon and California. Of the states with supermajority tax limitations, however, only the requirements in Washington and Wisconsin were enacted as ordinary law. The requirements in all other the states are part of the state constitution.
Initiative 1185 allows voters to clearly frame the state’s budget debate. Washington budget writers face a projected $1 billion budget shortfall for the 2013-15 biennium, despite projected revenue growth of $1.5 billion. Without a two-thirds vote restriction, the legislature is likely to consider passing substantial tax increases.
If voters pass Initiative 1185, however, lawmakers will shift away from trying to raise taxes and focus on fundamental budget reform and restructuring state spending.
Aside from the budget impact, if the two thirds vote requirement is adopted for the fifth time, constitutional reform is still needed. The voters have voiced their support for a two-thirds vote restriction on four separate occasions, only to have the legislature routinely suspend these requirements.
Some will say this recommendation is tied to the recent Court challenge to the law. Undeterred by four straight losses at the ballot box, opponents of the supermajority vote requirement for tax increases are once again trying to have the voter-approved requirement declared unconstitutional. The State Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral argument on September 25 challenging the law. A ruling is expected to be issued sometime before the 2013 Legislative Session.
Washington Policy Center has long recommended letting the people vote on whether to make the two-thirds requirement part of the constitution. Should the Court (as it has done the three previous times) reject the challenge to the nearly 20-year old statutory requirement enacted by the people and legislature on multiple occasions, this question should still be referred to the voters one last time.
This would let us get off this seemingly endless merry-go-round of passing the same law over and over again, so we can get some certainty on this policy.
A constitutional amendment would provide the public and businesses with predictability about whether this tax protection will exist from year to year and whether or not the four-time (pending fifth) approval of the voters for this policy was a fluke or actually reflects their consistent and ongoing desire for lawmakers to build a strong public consensus on the need for any proposed tax increase.
With voters and lawmakers repeatedly enacting the supermajority vote for taxes requirement over the past 20 years, what could be more representative of the public will than allowing a vote of the people on a constitutional amendment to help end this debate once and for all?
Jason Mercier is the government reform director at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Washington state. For more information, visit washingtonpolicy.org.