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Washington State Senate considers supermajority for taxes constitutional amendments

The Washington Policy Center | by Jason Mercier | February 15, 2013

The Washington State Senate Government Operations Committee held a public hearing on three proposed constitutional amendments to cement the voters consistent support for requiring a supermajority vote to raise taxes.

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 - Required a two-thirds vote in the legislature or voter approval for tax increases (passed statewide with 64% yes vote and approval in 44 of the 49 legislative districts)
  • 2010: Initiative 1053 - Required a two-thirds vote in the legislature or voter approval for tax increases (passed with 64% yes vote)
  • 2007: Initiative 960 - Required a two-thirds vote in the legislature or voter approval for tax increases (passed with 51% yes vote)
  • 1998: Referendum 49 - Affirmed the tax limitation provisions of 1993's Initiative 601 (passed with 57% yes vote)
  • 1993: Initiative 601 - Required a two-thirds vote in the legislature or voter approval for tax increases (passed with 51% yes vote)

Requiring a supermajority vote in the legislature to increase taxes is not unique to Washington. Eighteen states (counting Washington) have some form of supermajority vote requirement for tax increases. The other states are:

  • Alabama - State income and property taxes cannot be increased without a constitutional amendment

  • Arizona -  requires a two-thirds vote in the legislature

  • Arkansas - requires a three-fourths vote in the legislature

  • California - requires a two-thirds vote in the legislature (includes fee increases)

  • Colorado - Voter approval required for all tax increases

  • Delaware - requires a three-fifths vote in the legislature

  • Florida - requires a two-thirds vote in the legislature

  • Kentucky - requires a three-fifths thirds vote in the legislature

  • Louisiana - requires a two-thirds vote in the legislature

  • Michigan - requires a three-fourths vote in the legislature to raise property taxes

  • Mississippi - requires a three-fifths vote in the legislature

  • Missouri - requires voter approval to raise taxes above a set revenue cap

  • Nevada - requires a two-thirds vote in the legislature (includes fee increases)

  • Oklahoma - requires a three-fourths vote in the legislature

  • Oregon - requires a three-fifths vote in the legislature

  • South Dakota - requires a two-thirds vote in the legislature

  • Wisconsin - requires a two-thirds vote in the legislature

Of the states with supermajority tax limitations, only the requirements in Washington and Wisconsin are ordinary law. The requirements in all other the states are part of the state constitution.

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. One could argue that requiring a supermajority vote to increase the financial burden the state places on its citizens is no more undemocratic than the many similar restrictions that are already part of the state constitution.

Several of these provisions have been part of Washington's constitution since its ratification in 1889. The most recent supermajority restriction was added by lawmakers and voters in 2007 with the requirement for a 3/5 legislative vote to access funds in the budget stabilization account. It is clear that supermajority vote requirements are not undemocratic or in most cases even controversial. Based on the numerous supermajority vote restrictions currently in Washington's constitution, providing the voters the opportunity to consider a constitutional supermajority restriction to raise tax would not be embracing undemocratic principles but instead would be following the existing constitutional precedents for requiring higher vote thresholds for certain government actions.

The State Supreme Court heard argument last year challenging the constitutionality of the state's 20 year old law requiring a supermajority vote for tax increases. A ruling could be issued anytime. When the Court does rule, there are three possible scenarios:

  • Option 1: The Court upholds its previous precedents and dismisses the case for lack of standing. Under this scenario the status quo will remain unchanged and we likely will see this issue on the ballot every two years.
  • Option 2: The Court upholds the supermajority vote for taxes requirement. As with option one, though the legal question will be resolved, we likely will see this issue on the ballot every two years.
  • Option 3: The Court strikes down the supermajority vote for taxes requirement. While this scenario will take the policy off the books it will not negate the fact the 20 year old requirement has been approved by the voters on five separate occasions and in the past when the Court has invalidated a law passed by the people the Legislature has sought to implement their will (I-695 car tabs and I-747 property tax cap).

The legislative response to each of these scenarios is the same: A constitutional amendment.

A constitutional amendment would provide the public and businesses with predictability about whether this tax protection will exist from year to year and whether or not the five time approval of the voters for this policy was a fluke or actually reflects their consistent and ongoing desire for lawmakers to build a strong public consensus on the need for any proposed tax increase.

With voters and lawmakers repeatedly enacting the supermajority vote for taxes requirement over the past 20 years, what could be more representative of the public will than allowing a vote of the people on a constitutional amendment to help end this debate once and for all?

Here are examples of state constitutional provisions requiring a supermajority vote in the Legislature to raise taxes:

California Constitution Article 13a, Section 3
"(a) Any change in state statute which results in any taxpayer paying a higher tax must be imposed by an act passed by not less than two-thirds of all members elected to each of the two houses of the Legislature, except that no new ad valorem taxes on real property, or sales or transaction taxes on the sales of real property may be imposed."

South Dakota Constitution Article 11, Section 14
"Vote required to impose or increase taxes.  The rate of taxation imposed by the State of South Dakota in regard to any tax may not be increased and no new tax may be imposed by the State of South Dakota unless by consent of the people by exercise of their right of initiative or by two-thirds vote of all the members elect of each branch of the Legislature."

Updated 2/7

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