Court tosses supermajority tax back in voters’ laps

The Washington state Supreme Court got it right in ruling last week that the state constitution requires only a simple majority in the state Legislature to pass any ordinary legislation.

The high court’s decision finally ends the 20-year debate over the constitutionality of citizen’s initiatives imposing a two-thirds supermajority on tax increases, and puts the issue squarely back where it belongs: on voters.

If the electorate wants a Legislature that will not raise taxes to pay for schools, roads or any other purpose, then it has a clear course of action. Voters must elect state lawmakers who share that view.

The court has answered only the constitutional question. It has done nothing to quell the broader political argument.

As Justice Susan Owens wrote in the court’s majority opinion, “Our holding today is not a judgment on the wisdom of requiring a supermajority for the passage of tax legislation. Such judgment is left to the legislative branch of our government. Should the people and the Legislature still wish to require a supermajority vote for tax legislation, they must do so through constitutional amendment, not through legislation.”

Supporters of the two-thirds requirement have criticized the Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision because, they say, it denies the wishes of the majority of Washington voters. It’s true, of course, voters have approved two-thirds initiatives several times since 199, and by wide margins.

During the same period, however, these same voters elected a Democratic governor, and Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. They have elected lawmakers more likely to seek tax increases, as well as spending cuts, to balance the budget.

Voters can’t have it both ways.

The real problem lies within the public’s ideological conflict. Voters have unrealistic expectations. They don’t want to kill government services, especially those that impact their lives directly or reflect their values for the environment, transportation or keeping dangerous criminals locked up. They also don’t want to pay for them.

Fully fund K-12 schools so my child gets a high-quality education, but don’t dip into my pocket.

Build me a new bridge across the Columbia River or Lake Washington so I can get to work, but don’t put any new taxes on my gasoline.

Keep dangerous criminals locked up, but don’t raise my taxes to build or staff another prison.

Keep our parks open and Puget Sound clean, so I can take my family fishing and hiking, but don’t ask me to pay more.

After the Supreme Court’s decision, voters can no longer hide behind citizen initiatives imposing the two-thirds rule.

If the electorate wants a no-tax Legislature, it must elect representatives like those in the U.S. Congress who have taken the Grover Norquist pledge. If voters want to enshrine a two-thirds supermajority for tax increases into the state constitution, it must elect representatives who will support that view.

Neither tax increases nor a constitutional amendment will likely emerge from this legislative session. That’s good. The public needs time to consider its renewed responsibilities in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision.