‘Supermajority’ restrictions make it harder for state to handle crises

September 28, 2012 

In good times and bad, our state leaders must be able to do what’s necessary to ensure Washington’s economic health.

But for nearly two decades they have had their hands tied by an unreason-able law that’s blocked the majority from taking a reasonable course in trying to mend our recession-battered economy – one that would have saved jobs, helped struggling families, and preserved opportunity for our children.

This “supermajority” law means that taxes can’t be raised, even by getting rid of ineffective, wasteful tax breaks, unless two-thirds of legislators agree. Furthermore, it only takes a majority vote to give corporations a special tax break but then requires a two-thirds vote to eliminate that same loophole. That doesn’t make sense.

The unreasonable constraints of this law have damaged Washington state in many ways.

The law, which is up for consideration on the November ballot as Initiative 1185, narrows our choices and thwarts the will of the majority when we can least afford it.

Had it not been for this fiscal straitjacket, the state’s responses to the recession could have been very different, and we would be in better shape today.

The law has given undue power to a handful of policymakers and has resulted in the elimination of nearly 18,000 front-line public-sector jobs since 2009 – including those of teachers, child protection workers, parole officers, health care providers and other middle-class workers.

The job losses have not only hurt schools, law enforcement and other essential services, but the economy as a whole. Every unemployed parole officer or nurse spends less money on clothes, food, entertainment and other goods and services, which hurts businesses and puts still more people out of work.

The law has meant that proposals to prevent job losses or cuts in food assistance, dental care, and prescriptions for seniors or child care for working families have not even come to a vote because legislative leaders knew the hands of the majority were tied by the minority.

With such reasonable revenue options as eliminating ineffective tax breaks unduly difficult, lawmakers had to make deep cuts that resulted in even more economic damage and jeopardized our future prosperity. For every new dollar that has gone to support higher education, child care and other economic investments since 2009, we’ve had to cut more than $17.

To compound this situation, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to fully fund education. School funding must be increased dramatically over the coming years in order to comply with the court order. With the supermajority requirement in place, this will be impossible.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Washington has faced challenges like this before and overcome them by working together on common-sense solutions that made our state a better place to live and do business. Prior to the state’s first supermajority law in 1993, policymakers responded to recessions with a recipe that worked – a balanced mix of targeted cuts in spending and tax increases. That reasonable approach lessened the severity of downturns by maintaining crucial investments in health care, education, child care and job training while the economy recovered.

Washington state was able to come together during those earlier recessions and negotiate reasonable solutions to economic problems. But if the supermajority law remains, we’ll continue to be blocked from taking the reasonable steps the majority of us support.

Remy Trupin is the executive director of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, a progressive research organization based in Seattle.

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