Politics & Government

State senators say their higher bar for raising taxes would be constitutional

Doug Ericksen
Doug Ericksen The Bellingham Herald

For the second year in a row, two Republican state senators are proposing a procedural rule that would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate – rather than a simple majority – to pass a tax increase.

State voters have repeatedly passed ballot initiatives requiring a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate to increase taxes, but the state Supreme Court in 2013 ruled that unconstitutional, writing that such changes can only be made by changing the state constitution, not by ballot initiative.

The proposal, from state Sens. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, and Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, would sidestep that ruling by requiring a two-thirds majority vote not for a bill to pass the Senate, but for a bill to advance to the stage where it can pass the Senate.

The Senate, which is narrowly controlled by Republicans, adopted an identical rule last year, but Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, a Democrat and the presiding officer in the Senate, declared that he wouldn’t enforce the rule, allowing the Senate to pass a gas-tax increase.

“It was wildly improper for the lieutenant governor to declare the rule unconstitutional,” Baumgartner said in a prepared statement Monday. “Only the courts can do that, and we’re on a sound legal footing if the rule faces a legal challenge.”

Owen, who is retiring, will be replaced as lieutenant governor by state Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Bellevue, who has said he will be more aggressive than Owen in not approving legislation he deems unconstitutional.

Baumgartner and Ericksen say their two-thirds rule does not violate the Supreme Court’s ruling because it applies to Senate procedural votes, not votes on final passage.

Their rule would require a two-thirds majority to advance tax bills from second reading to third reading. A bill cannot be passed until it has been read three times.

They also say that if Habib declares their rule unconstitutional, they will challenge him with a floor vote, where a simple majority could overturn his ruling.

The Legislature is preparing to pass a budget in 2017 and will also seek to come up with billions of dollars in school funding, necessary to comply with a ruling from the McCleary case, in which the Supreme Court ruled the Legislature has been underfunding basic public education.

Baumgartner said the two-thirds rule would give the Senate “discipline” it needs to be able to fully fund education.