The 2010 Legislative Session is scheduled to come to a close on March 11. Rumors of a special session, however, are starting to be heard in the halls of the capitol. Facilitating the consideration of numerous tax proposals now being debated is the decision to repeal for 2-years most of Initiative 960.
On three separate occasions (1993, 1998 and 2007) voters have adopted an initiative or referendum to require a 2/3 vote of lawmakers to raise taxes. On three separate occasions (2002, 2005 and 2010) the Legislature and Governor have signed a law to “temporarily” repeal this requirement to facilitate tax increases.
On February 24, 2010, Governor Gregoire signed the latest 2-year repeal of this requirement reinstated by voters via Initiative 960 (I-960). I-960 was adopted in 2007.
Advertised as the “Taxpayer Protection Act,” I-960 re-affirmed an oft ignored law that requires a 2/3 vote of the legislature to raise taxes. The measure also required that the legislature approve all state fee increases and that the public be notified via email any time a tax or fee increase is proposed. I-960 also mandated that if the legislature raises taxes without first referring them for voter approval, the voters would have the opportunity to participate in a non-binding advisory vote on the tax increase.
For each tax increase, the public was to receive the following information in the voters’ pamphlet:
A description of each tax increase. A ten-year estimate of how much lawmakers increased the financial burden they place on taxpayers. A list showing how each lawmaker voted. Each legislator’s contact information.
Along with the 2-year repeal of 2/3 vote requirement, the Legislature and Governor this year also repealed for 2-years the non-binding advisory votes and subsequent voters’ pamphlet.
As a result, Washington Policy Center will publish the public disclosure information that would have appeared in the voters' pamphlet if Initiative 960 had remained in place.
The project will be conducted by researchers at Washington Policy Center’s independent website WashingtonVotes.org.
According to a poll of 500 voters conducted by Seattle-based KING 5 TV, voters don’t support state officials’ actions to repeal the law.
The KING 5 poll found 68% opposed the repeal of I-960 with only 24% in support. In addition the poll found that 74% believe lawmakers should have to reach a 2/3 vote to raise taxes.
I-960 sponsor Tim Eyman has already filed a new initiative to provide voters with the opportunity to implement a 2/3 vote requirement for tax increases for the fourth time.
Ultimately lawmakers need to have the courage to end this debate once and for all by putting the 2/3 vote requirement for tax increases on the ballot as a constitutional amendment. Regardless of the outcome, the intent of voters will no longer be in question and the 2/3 vote protections will not be subject of legal debate or legislative shenanigans. Of those states with a supermajority requirement for tax increases, Washington is the only one without constitutional protections.
Washington Policy Center has long advocated for this type of constitutional protection for taxpayers.
Perhaps one silver lining from the 2-year repeal of I-960 is the increased public attention on how easy it is to disregard voter-approved initiatives. Although initiatives adopted by the people are statutory law just like bills passed by the Legislature, it is a much higher hurdle for citizens to get their laws enacted. As such there should be a high threshold to change or repeal their laws or they should at least have a say.
This is why Washington Policy Center proposes the following constitutional changes: "Adopt constitutional reform that requires a two-thirds vote of the legislature to amend a voter-approved initiative. The two-year limitation on requiring a two-thirds vote of lawmakers to amend an initiative should be eliminated, so that the two-thirds requirement applies whenever the legislature seeks to change a voter-approved law. The only time legislators should be allowed to amend an initiative with a simple majority vote is when they first send the proposed changes to the voters for approval."
If there are technical problems with an initiative or circumstances change that warrant immediate repeal or changes, a 2/3 vote should be sufficient. If this threshold can’t be reached, the Legislature should submit their changes to the voters via a referendum for ratification.
After all, Article 1, Section 1 of the state Constitution makes it clear, “All political power is inherent in the people, and governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and are established to protect and maintain individual rights.”
Jason Mercier is director of the Center for Government Reform at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Washington state. For more information visit washingtonpolicy.org.