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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."

Washington Supreme Court Tosses Out Supermajority Tax Vote Requirement

OLYMPIA, Wash. - Washington Democrats say it’s a victory for democracy. Republicans call it a defeat for taxpayers. In a major decision Thursday, the Washington Supreme Court tossed out the state’s two-thirds supermajority requirement for raising taxes. In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled that the voter-approved law violates a provision of the Washington state constitution that requires a simple majority vote in the state legislature to approve bills.

"The plain language, constitutional history, and weight of persuasive authority support reading this provision as setting both a minimum and a maximum voting requirement,” Justice Susan Owens wrote in the majority opinion.

The legal challenge to the supermajority requirement came from education funding advocates and a dozen Democratic lawmakers. Among them, State Representative Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma. She says the ruling will give lawmakers more options as they grapple with a $1 billion budget shortfall.

“I mean if you look last year, we tried to close the loophole for out of state shoppers to fund again I think it was all day [Kindergarten]," Jinkins says. "We weren’t able to do that because it required a two-thirds majority.”

Other Democrats also responded positively. Governor Jay Inslee said, “The state Supreme Court did the right thing today in ruling that a supermajority requirement for ordinary legislation would alter our system of government. The supermajority requirement gave a legislative minority the power to squelch ideas even when those ideas had majority support. That is inconsistent with our fundamental form of representative democracy."

The much anticipated ruling could prove a game-changer in Olympia where lawmakers face a projected $1 billion shortfall in the next two-year budget, plus a Supreme Court mandate to increase funding for public schools.

"I think it gives us additional options that we can look at," said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, at a news conference shortly after the ruling was published. "Now when we look at even [tax] loophole closures it gives us probably a greater opportunity to have that option when we're trying to balance that budget."

But over in the Washington senate, where 23 Republicans and 2 breakaway Democrats have control, there was a very different reaction to the ruling. Deputy Republican Leader Don Benton said he would propose a change to senate rules to require a two-thirds vote on taxes out of that chamber. Within hours of the ruling, the Senate Ways and Means committee voted out a proposed constitutional amendment to enshrine the supermajority rule in the Washington constitution.

"I think one of our roles in the legislature is to fulfill the wishes of the people," said Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, before the vote. "The voters have been very clear in Washington state, we've had five votes on this ...  [and] we want to make sure that the wishes of the people are respected." 

However, Tom acknowledges at this point he doesn't have the 33 votes needed to pass the constitutional amendment off the Senate floor. He says he would need eight members of the Senate Democratic caucus to join the 25 member Majority Coalition he leads in order to achieve passage. It takes a two-thirds vote of the legislature plus ratification by the people to amend the Washington constitution.

Majority Democrats in the Washington House were 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," said House Judiciary Chair Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle.

Initiative 601 in 1993 was the first time Washington voters approved a two-thirds requirement for tax hikes. The most recent vote was last November when Washington voters approved I-1185 by nearly a supermajority margin. It, like past similar measures, was sponsored by anti-tax activist Tim Eyman.

Eyman drove down to the Capitol following the ruling. He told reporters the question now becomes how with the legislature respond.

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

Over the years, the Washington Supreme Court has rejected previous legal challenges to the two-thirds rule on the grounds the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring their lawsuit. In this case, the high court found the lawmakers had standing because they had tried and failed -- on the floor of the Washington House - to close a tax exemption with only a simple majority vote. The Speaker of the House ultimately ruled the measure needed a supermajority vote to pass. That was a carefully choreographed vote designed to create the pretext for a legal challenge.

The three members of the Washington Supreme Court who dissented are Justices Charles Johnson, James Johnson and Debra Stephens. In his dissent, Justice Charles Johnson writes the majority disregards "20 years of precedent" and is charting "a new course for the court to more actively engage in the political process. This change is both unwise and unprecedented."

On the Web:

Read the decision - 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."