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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Defiance And Praise As Washington High Court Makes Tax Hikes Easier

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Raising taxes in Washington just got a whole lot easier. The state Supreme Court Thursday threw out the requirement that tax increases muster a two-thirds vote of the legislature. Democrats say the ruling will allow more options as lawmakers grapple with ongoing budget woes. But Republicans vow to uphold the will of voters who have repeatedly supported a high bar for tax hikes.

Five times over the past 20 years, Washington voters have approved measures to require a supermajority vote for tax hikes. The last three were sponsored by anti-tax activist Tim Eyman. The most recent one – last year – passed with a nearly two-thirds vote of the people.

Eyman drove down to the Capitol. He told reporters the question now is what will the legislature do?

“Nothing’s changed as far as the level of public support for this measure," he said. "Six justices obviously don’t like it, but 1.9 million people do.”

That was also the message inside the capitol – at least from leaders of the Republican-dominated majority coalition in the state Senate.

“We’re going to honor the will of the people,” said Deputy Republican Leader Don Benton. He announced he would move to change the rules of the Senate to require a supermajority vote for taxes.

“The court has no jurisdiction over our internal rules," Benton says. "The Senate controls our internal rules. And this would be an internal rule change.”

And Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, one of two Democrats in the 25 member coalition, vowed to immediately move a supermajority constitutional amendment out of committee.

If the Senate majority was feeling defiant. Over in the House majority Democrats were feeling vindicated. The court opinion called the two-thirds requirement for taxes “a tyranny of the minority.”

“That’s what we’ve had,” says State Representative Laurie Jinkins. She is one of the dozen Democratic lawmakers who brought the lawsuit, along with the state’s teachers’ union and the League of Education Voters.

Jinkins hopes the ruling leads to a robust conversation about closing tax exemptions.

“What loopholes are really doing something for people in the state of Washington and are they doing something better than funding education or funding homecare services.”

House Democrats were also quick to dismiss the Senate’s call for a constitutional amendment to bring back the supermajority rule.

“No one in his right mind would ever adopt a constitutional amendment that looks like these initiatives,” says House Judiciary Chair Jamie Pedersen.

Back outside the Capitol, as Tim Eyman finished his press conference, a voice from the back of the media scrum.

“Where is the fraud and the waste and abuse in the budget, Tim?” asked State Senator Adam Kline, a self-described liberal from Seattle who’s tangled with Eyman before. Kline said even with the lower threshold to raise taxes, the message from voters remains intact.

“There will be no rush to the barricades to start passing tax bills. You will not see that here.”

And Senate Republicans say if any revenue is included in a final budget, they’ll insist it go to voters for final approval.

On the Web:

Opinion: League of Education Voters v. State - Washington Courts

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."