Politics & Elections:
Tim Eyman gathers signatures
while tax supermajority requirement
awaits King County court ruling
OLYMPIA -- The fate of Washington's supermajority requirement for raising or creating new taxes in the Legislature rests in the hands of a King County Superior Court judge.
Judge Bruce Heller heard arguments for and against the constitutionality of Washington's Initiative 1053 last month. Both sides anticipate that the losing party will appeal the ruling and ultimately send the case to the Washington Supreme Court.
Voters passed the initiative, a brainchild of conservative activist Tim Eyman, in November 2010. About 64 percent of voters supported the measure, which requires either a two-thirds vote of the Legislature or simple majority approval in a public vote to increase or create new taxes.
The plaintiffs argue that the initiative process is an invalid method for creating the two-thirds rule. A legitimate way to do it would be through a constitutional amendment passed in the Legislature, they say. Beyond the question of its constitutionality, the impact of the measure has become the subject of much political debate since it went into effect.
"This initiative prevents legislators from having all of their constitutionally protected powers at their disposal for making budget decisions," said Chris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education Voters. "In fact, it turns democracy on its head by giving the minority all of the power. Why would you put barriers around what the Legislature can do and needs to do, especially in these economic times?"
Korsmo's group leads a consortium of plaintiffs that includes the Washington Education Association and a number of House Democrats including Rep. Jim Moeller of Vancouver. The plaintiffs say the initiative paralyzes the Legislature's ability to fund education and close outdated tax loopholes.
"It makes a sham out of what we currently have," Moeller said. "We can expand tax incentives but not close them with a simple majority. That's ridiculous."
It's not an issue of partisanship, he insists. It's about hampering the majority's ability to govern, regardless of which party holds that position.
But supporters of the initiative say it has ushered in a healthy change in the budgeting process by creating necessary limits on spending.
"I wholly support 1053 and the concept behind 1053," said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver. "Because we have a Legislature that is very out of touch with what the people want, we have Tim Eyman."
The initiative has forced lawmakers to say no, Benton said, when there is not enough money to spend on something. "And I think that's a good thing," he said.
The initiative has been highly effective, Eyman says. It has forced legislators to examine every alternative before increasing or creating new taxes.
"It made tax increases a last resort," he said. "It did exactly what voters wanted."
And when lawmakers do that, Eyman says, they use reforms to balance the budget instead, as Republicans in the Senate have demanded in the latest budget cycle.
Eyman points to measures such as the pension reform bill from Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, and the balanced budget proposal that recently emerged as examples of how lawmakers can work around tax increases.
"Those proposals would never see the light of day if it weren't for the two-thirds," Eyman said.
As everyone awaits the judicial ruling, Eyman is already gathering signatures for a measure to renew the initiative. The measure is officially titled Initiative 1185.
Voter-approved initiatives can be amended in the Legislature two years after they pass a public vote, giving lawmakers the opportunity to put I-1053 on the chopping block. Eyman is certain that would happen if he doesn't renew the initiative.
"It's almost like (legislators are) alcoholics and they're on the wagon for two years, and then someone hands them a bottle," Eyman said. "We've got to keep these guys contained or they're going to go absolutely hog wild."
Making the supermajority rule permanent would require a two-thirds vote of approval for a constitutional amendment and then simple majority support in a public vote, Eyman said.
Eyman toyed with the idea of tweaking the initiative but decided to make it a straightforward reinstatement of the legislative supermajority requirement.
I-1053 picked up significant support from the business community. BP, the Washington State Farm Bureau and JPMorgan Chase were among the top donors, each contributing tens of thousands of dollars to the initiative's campaign.
Eyman anticipates strong voter support for the initiative.
"Word on the street is they're being very well received," he said. "We just think there's going to be a slew of people that are going to sign the petition."
Moeller said he could also see the new initiative as a popular measure among voters, based on the way they voted in 2010.
"It makes a great bumper sticker," he said. "It's hard to explain the process of governing in three or four words."
This is not the first time the supermajority requirement has faced a legal challenge. Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, filed a lawsuit against the initiative's predecessor, I-960, in 2008. The state Supreme Court rejected her suit in a 9-0 ruling.
The measure passed in 2007 with about 51 percent of the public vote. Then the Legislature voted to suspend I-960 in 2010 to help lawmakers close a budget gap of more than $2.5 billion.After suspending the measure, Democratic lawmakers passed a revenue package that included about $6.7 billion in tax increases for the next ten years, Eyman said.
-- Justin Runquist