Guest: The case for a supermajority vote on tax increases
A supermajority vote on tax increases is a needed taxpayer protection whose time has come, write guest columnists Jason Mercier and Chris Cargill.
Special to The Times
USUALLY when voters speak, lawmakers listen — though some may claim the message from voters wasn’t clear. What could be unclear, though, about the voters saying five times that they want broader consensus before their financial burdens are raised?
The state Supreme Court in a 6-3 ruling in 2013 overturned the five-time-voter-approved supermajority requirement, saying the policy must be adopted via constitutional amendment instead of by initiative. But in the past, when the court has struck down a popular 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).
The Senate did vote last session to amend the state Constitution to require a two-thirds majority vote of the Legislature to raise state taxes. This proposed constitutional amendment (Senate Joint Resolution 8213) would have allowed voters, for the sixth time, to consider this important taxpayer protection. Although the measure received 25 votes in support, it fell short of the 33 needed to advance to the House.
While efforts continue in the Legislature for this constitutional reform, there is equal concern about tax increases at the local level. According to a statewide poll last May, 63 percent of Washingtonians want greater taxpayer protection at the local level. The poll result is nearly identical to the actual 64 percent statewide vote for Initiative 1185 in 2012, showing people still want this type of taxpayer protection.
In fact, some local voters have already acted. In February 2013, voters in Spokane adopted a city supermajority requirement. Nine months later, Yakima voters also approved a charter change requiring a higher threshold for increasing the financial burden on citizens. In 2012, concerned about cost shifts onto local governments, the Pierce County Council sent a measure to voters to require a supermajority for new taxes in Pierce County. Like Spokane and Yakima, it was approved.
In all three jurisdictions, it now takes five of seven councilmembers — or a simple majority vote of the people — to adopt a tax hike. Historically, a higher vote threshold has required a greater discussion with citizens about tax increases and budgeting priorities.
Opponents of requiring a supermajority vote to raise taxes say it is undemocratic. Supermajority requirements, however, are a routine part of democracy. They exist at the federal, state and local levels and are a common feature of democratic governments in other countries.
Washington state’s Constitution contains more than 20 supermajority requirements. The most recent was added in 2007, when Democratic state Sen. Lisa Brown of Spokane and Republican Sen. Joseph Zarelli of Ridgefield worked together to send voters SJR 8206 to require a three-fifths vote of the Legislature to spend money from the Budget Stabilization Account. Voters approved the measure in 2007.
A supermajority vote requirement does not make it impossible for elected officials to increase taxes. It simply requires lawmakers to reach greater consensus before increasing the financial burden they place on citizens. In fact, Spokane was able to raise its property tax recently, even with the new supermajority vote requirement, because a large majority of the City Council agreed it was necessary.
In the absence of consensus on the council, however, officials can always ask voters to approve a tax increase directly with a simple majority vote. As shown by the consistent support for this policy at both the local and state level, taxpayers expect reasonable financial protections, like a supermajority vote requirement for tax increases, to be in place to avoid controversial votes that push through tax increases without broad public support.
Jason Mercier is Washington Policy Center’s director of the Center for Government Reform and is based out of the Tri-Cities. Chris Cargill is WPC’s Eastern Washington director. For more information, please visit www.washingtonpolicy.org.