Politics Blog

Ericksen tax-vote move wins; Inslee carbon, capital-gains taxes already DOA?

Yogi Berra famously said, “It’s not over till it’s over.”

The state Legislature will meet for at least 104 more days, but one wonders if the centerpieces of Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget are already done with.

Republicans in the state Senate got Job 1 done on Day 1, Monday, Jan. 12, approving a procedural rule that requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate to bring any new tax to the floor for a final vote.

The rule would apply to an attempt by Democrats to create a new tax — say, a carbon tax, a capital-gains tax or an income tax (not really on the table). It wouldn’t apply to a proposal to raise an existing tax, e.g. sales or gas.

Inslee’s budget calls for $1.515 billion in new revenue for 2015-17, including $798 million from a capital-gains tax and $379 million from a cap-and-trade requirement for the state’s largest producers of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Details of today’s Senate vote were provided by our sister paper, the Tacoma News Tribune. Political reporter Melissa Santos is in Olympia today, covering the open day of the session.

With this procedural move, Senate Republicans found a way to set a higher bar for tax votes, getting around a 2013 state Supreme Court ruling stating that a law requiring a two-thirds vote for taxes was unconstitutional, and only a constitutional amendment could make that happen.

Santos heard from Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, a Democrat who presides over the Senate, who said he might challenge the two-thirds requirement.

From the story:

“(Sen. David) Frockt (D-Seattle) said he expects that members of his party will challenge the Senate’s new two-thirds rule as soon as they have an opportunity, or whenever a new tax measure comes up for a vote this year.

“If that happens, Democratic Lt. Gov. Brad Owen – who presides over the Senate – would make a ruling as to how many votes are required to pass the legislation at hand.

“Owen said Monday that if a challenge to the two-thirds rule is presented, he will follow what is laid out in the state constitution. In its 2013 ruling, the Supreme Court said the constitution is clear in saying that only a simple majority of lawmakers – or 50 percent plus 1 – is necessary to pass regular legislation, including tax bills. Exceptions are made only in special cases, such as passing bonds and constitutional amendments.

“‘A (Senate) rule can never supersede or nullify the constitution,’ Owen said Monday.”

I discussed this a little with Santos this evening. She hinted at what a possible challenge by Owen could look like, and what the Senate Republicans might be able to do in response. Suffice to say this wasn’t a clear victory for Republicans, nor do Dems have a straightforward way to block the new two-thirds rule.

I texted a co-author of the Senate’s two-thirds rule, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, to get his take on Owen’s statement:

Me: TNT is reporting Brad Owen can overrule 2/3 rule and make final ruling on how many votes required to pass legislation. Do you agree? Can Owen undermine the 2/3 rule?

Ericksen: No

We’ll see in the next 104 days or so.