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WA Supreme Court strikes down two-thirds majority requirement to pass tax increase

The two-thirds majority rule has been approved in a series of initiatives pushed by activist Tim Eyman. Voters most recently approved the supermajority rule last November. (AP Photo/file)

The Washington Supreme Court has struck down a requirement for a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature to pass a tax increase.

The high court ruled Thursday that an initiative requiring a two-thirds vote was in conflict with the state Constitution. And that lawmakers and the people of Washington would need to pass a constitutional amendment to change from a simple majority to a supermajority.

A coalition of lawmakers and education groups sued the state over the issue, and a King County judge decided last spring that the state constitution requires only a simple majority to pass tax proposals. The Supreme Court agreed to expedite its consideration.

The Washington Education Association was among the coalition. Spokesman Rich Wood calls the decision “a great victory for public education, giving the legislature another tool to fully fund public education.”

Gov. Jay Inslee praised the ruling in a statement.

“The state Supreme Court did the right thing today in ruling that a supermajority requirement for ordinary legislation would alter our system of government. 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.”

State Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, said the court had opened the floodgates of taxation with its ruling. The chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Operations Committee has already proposed a constitutional amendment to make the two-thirds majority permanent.

“This is a seminal point in our history,” she said, noting that the people in every county have already shown their support for a two-thirds tax rule.

To pass a constitutional amendment, the Legislature must approve the measure by a two-thirds majority and then it goes to the people for a simple majority vote.

The two-thirds majority rule has been approved in a series of initiatives pushed by activist Tim Eyman. Voters most recently approved the supermajority rule last November.

In a statement reacting to the court decision, Eyman wrote that the voters were more enthusiastic about his most recent tax initiative than they were about the new governor.

“Almost 2/3 of voters approved the 2/3-for-taxes vote requirement in November. That’s 1.9 million voters. It passed in every county and received overwhelming support in every legislative district outside Seattle (44 of 49 districts),” said Eyman. “In light of today’s ruling, all eyes now move to the Legislature and what they’re going to do.”

Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said he is open to discussion about enshrining more tax limits into the Constitution, perhaps a limit to the sales tax if lawmakers considered an income tax. But he and other Democrats opposed the idea of enshrining the two-thirds rule.

Democratic Sen. David Frockt said whatever decision lawmakers make on taxes, voters still have their say at the ballot through referendums and elections.

“We are accountable on those votes,” Frockt said.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Susan Owens, states that under a commonsense understanding, any bill receiving a simple majority vote will become law. No language in the provision qualifies that requirement by stating a bill needs “at least a majority vote.”

They wrote that without the simple majority rule in the Constitution, the people or the Legislature could require particular bills to receive 90 percent approval rather than just a two-thirds approval, thus essentially ensuring that those types of bills would never pass.

“Such a result is antithetical to the notion of a functioning government and should be rejected as such,” the justices wrote.

Justice Charles Johnson, writes in a dissent, that “In its eagerness to embroil itself in the political arena, the majority abandons any semblance of judicial restraint to declare the process of legislative enactment constitutionally infirm.”

Johnson wrote that voters have repeatedly voted for the supermajority provision, and that the court has repeatedly been asked to weigh in in past years and had previously “rejected the invitation to engage in this political dispute, exercising the wisdom, restraint, and temperance not to step outside the court’s constitutional authority.”

“Evidently something has changed, though the majority does not tell us what, to cause it to abandon these limiting principles and chart a new course for the court to more actively engage in the political process,” he wrote. “This change is both unwise and unprecedented.”

Justice Jim Johnson, writing in a separate dissent, wrote that the majority “ironically overrides our constitution and prior case law to enforce an invented policy concern: the fear that laws requiring a supermajority to raise taxes permit a “tyranny of the minority.”

He said that with its decision, the majority “is imposing their policy preference over that of the 1,575,655 voters who passed Initiative 1053 (I-1053) and the millions who qualified and passed similar tax protections.” “I regretfully observe that this court has become the tyrannous minority it purports to guard against,” Johnson wrote.

The Associated Press’ Rachel La Corte and Mike Baker contributed to this report.

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