Only voter pressure will enshrine supermajority rule

Washington voters display something approaching an affinity for liberal politicians and an antipathy for tax increases. That quirk reasserted itself last November. The biggest statewide winner, with 64 percent approval, was Initiative 1053, which reimposed the two-thirds majority for tax increases. In a high turnout presidential year, the measure garnered nearly 1.9 million votes, passing in all 39 counties. Sen. Maria Cantwell came in second, with 60 percent, followed by President Barack Obama with 56 percent. Gov. Jay Inslee was elected with 51.5 percent.

I’ve referred to this as an Evergreen State predilection for liberals on leashes. For the last twenty years it protected taxpayers from tax hikes, while allowing them to elect candidates who generally reflected their values on nonfiscal issues. With last week’s state Supreme Court decision that the supermajority requirement for tax increases is unconstitutional, the leashes are off.

The wonder is that it lasted so long. In a 2007 column, I wrote of Initiative 960, the supermajority requirement passed that year, “... it’s likely that most members of the court ... think the initiative’s restraints on legislative authority are unconstitutional. ... Expect the initiative’s restrictions on legislative tax-raising authority to fall.”

The court managed to duck the issue for nearly five more years. But the result was telegraphed like a heavyweight’s roundhouse right. You could see it coming from the cheap seats. While the six justices rejecting the requirement took pains to say they were not passing “judgment on the wisdom of requiring a supermajority for the passage of tax legislation,” their reference to the “tyranny of the minority” suggests otherwise. Groups applauding the ruling cheerfully parroted the line.

For 20 years, voters have been happy to let the tyrants keep their taxes down. The court says if they want to retain that protection, they’ll have to amend the constitution as 13 other states have done.

The challenge here is that voters cannot amend the constitution by initiative. Constitutional amendments originate with the Legislature. It takes a supermajority of both chambers to put one on the ballot. A Senate committee has already approved a proposed supermajority amendment, but a two-thirds vote in the closely divided chamber is unlikely. And the House has said it won’t even consider it. Legislators generally don’t volunteer for restraints.

With lawmakers looking at a shortfall of more than $2 billion, including the cost of court-ordered increases in education finance, an easier path to higher taxes received a warm welcome from interest groups and liberal legislators. Still, tax hikes won’t be easy in the present legislative environment.

The fiscally conservative Senate majority, two Democrats and 23 Republicans, won’t be any more willing to raise taxes now that the standard has been lowered than they were when the bar was set high. House Democrats will also move cautiously, mindful of the clear message sent by the electorate just months ago.

Even so, the push for tax limitation will continue. In a sharp dissent Justice James Johnson refutes the “tyranny of the minority” argument, arguing that the supermajority requirement is “a powerful tool for combating abuse by a short-term majority.” He concludes that the court’s decision won’t be the last word.

“If the history of this great state can teach us anything, it is this: the power of the people will prevail,” he writes, noting voters can replace tax-hiking legislators and repeal unpopular levies. He calls a constitutional amendment “an even more commanding exercise of their power.”

The statutory constraint imposed by the initiative had some advantages. The two-thirds requirement was in place for just two years, after which the Legislature could amend it with a simple majority vote. To keep it in place, voters had regularly to reenact it, reaffirming their desire to make it more difficult to increase the tax burden. A constitutional amendment is a different thing, more enduring, more restrictive and more difficult to enact.

Difficult, but not impossible.

After 20 years, voters understand how the supermajority requirement works. If they want it in the constitution, they first must elect a Legislature that will place it on the ballot. They should begin by making it an issue in the 2014 campaign.

The other alternative for voters wanting conservative fiscal policy: Elect fiscal conservatives.