Will voters get sixth shot at supermajority for taxes?

January 27, 2014

How would you define the undisputed will of voters? Is it passing in every county of the state? Is it passing in 44 of the state's 49 legislative districts (90%)? Is it receiving more votes than either President Obama or Governor Inslee in a blue state? Is it going five for five at the ballot box over the past 20 years? If the answer to these questions is yes, then it is clear that Washingtonians want a legislative supermajority vote to raise taxes or voter approval.

The question that remains: Will voters get the final opportunity to put this policy into the state's constitution? We'll get a good first look at this tomorrow in the Senate Ways & Means Committee when a public hearing is held on SJR 8213: Amending the Constitution to require a two-thirds majority vote of the legislature to raise taxes.

The reason we are having this conversation yet again is because last February, the State Supreme Court in a 6-3 ruling overturned the five-time voter approved requirement for tax increases to receive a supermajority vote of the Legislature or voter approval. In the past, when the Court has invalidated a law passed by the people, the Legislature has sought to implement what the people want (Initiative 695 reducing car tab costs and Initiative 747 limiting property tax increases are recent examples).

Although the State Supreme Court struck down the state’s decades-old statutory supermajority for taxes requirement, the justices were clear that they were not ruling on the “wisdom” of the policy itself, and instead that ultimately the people should decide:

Our holding is not a judgment on the wisdom of requiring a supermajority for 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, they should do so through a constitutional amendment.

SJR 8213 would allow the Legislature and people to make this decision. 

There are nearly two-dozen supermajority requirements currently in Washington's Constitution. These provisions have been placed there to require a high vote threshold for certain government actions. These restrictions appear to be policy choices. The most recent supermajority restriction was added by lawmakers and voters in 2007 with the requirement for a three-fifths legislative vote to access funds in the budget stabilization account. It is clear that supermajority vote requirements are not undemocratic. In most cases they are not even controversial.

Requiring a supermajority vote in the legislature to increase taxes is not unique to Washington.  Prior to the Court’s ruling, eighteen states (counting Washington) had some form of supermajority vote requirement for tax increases. These 18 include several other Western states, including California, Arizona and neighboring Oregon. Of the states with supermajority tax limitations, only the requirements in Washington and Wisconsin were ordinary law. The requirements in all other the states are part of the state constitution.

Voters in Washington have enacted or affirmed the two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases five times during the past 20 years:

  • 2012: Initiative 1185 - passed statewide with 64% yes vote and approval in 44 of the 49 legislative districts

  • 2010: Initiative 1053 - passed with 64% yes vote

  • 2007: Initiative 960 - passed with 51% yes vote

  • 1998: Referendum 49 - passed with 57% yes vote (affirmed provisions of I-601)

  • 1993: Initiative 601 - passed with 51% yes vote

Although the Supreme Court invalidated this taxpayer protection as ordinary law, its ruling did not negate the fact that on five separate occasions the voters have demanded this requirement, most recently with statewide passage of Initiative 1185 with a 64% vote and approval in 44 of the state’s 49 legislative districts. Lawmakers should give voters the sixth and final opportunity to consider this policy as a constitutional amendment.

Additional Information
Vote on I-1185 by Legislative District

Supermajority Vote Requirements Are a Basic Part of Washington's Democracy