Senate should put voter-approved tax restrictions into its rules

Now that the 2014 election has been certified we know the official make up of the Legislature. Based on the responses to our supermajority for taxes legislative survey, we also know that the members of the Majority Coalition Caucus (MCC) in the Senate support allowing the voters to consider a constitutional amendment to put the five-time voter approved policy into the Constitution. While efforts continue to move a constitutional amendment to the ballot for voters to consider the MCC could re-affirm its support for this popular taxpayer protection by placing the requirement in its rules.

This could be done while complying with the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling. Under that ruling a majority vote is required on final passage for a tax increase. Article 2, Section 9 of the state Constitution, however, makes it clear the Legislature can set its own procedural rules:

“Each house may determine the rules of its own proceedings, punish for contempt and disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds of all the members elected, expel a member, but no member shall be expelled a second time for the same offense.”

This means that short of restricting the vote required on final passage, the Senate could adopt a supermajority vote requirement for tax increases earlier in the procedural process. This could be modeled after the prior Senate Rule 53 that required a supermajority vote to amend a budget bill:

“Rule 53 (old). No amendment to the budget, capital budget or supplemental budget, not incorporated in the bill as reported by the ways and means committee, shall be adopted except by the affirmative vote of sixty percent of the senators elected or appointed.”

The Senate could adopt a new Rule 53 (currently is reserved) under the title “Revenue Increase Bills and Amendments” that says something to the effect of:

“No bill that increases state tax revenue deposited in any fund or account for the operating budget shall be placed on the Senate floor calendar except by the affirmative vote of sixty percent of the senators elected or appointed. For bills already on the floor, no amendment that increases revenue shall be adopted except by the affirmative vote of sixty percent of the senators elected or appointed.”

To avoid any ambiguity on the intent of this new rule, Senate Rule 48 and Rule 50 could also be amended to add similar language for relieving a committee of a revenue increase bill or for approval by the Rules Committee.

For the past 20 years the voters have consistently said they want their lawmakers to reach a broad consensus on the need to raise taxes or to include the voters directly in the decision. Although the State 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 percent vote and approval in 44 of the state’s 49 legislative districts. In fact, the tax limitation received more votes in 2012 than either President Obama or Governor Inslee.

Allowing the people to vote on a constitutional amendment would be representative of the public will and would help end this debate once and for all. In the meantime, the MCC can demonstrate its support for this taxpayer protection by placing it into its rules.

Additional Information
2014 Legislative Tax Survey (updated)
SJR 8213: Amending the Constitution to require a two-thirds majority vote of the legislature to raise taxes
Will voters get sixth shot at supermajority for taxes?
Supermajority Vote Requirements Are a Basic Part of Washington’s Democracy
63% of voters want local supermajority for taxes protections

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Jason Mercier

Jason Mercier

Jason Mercier is the Director of the Center for Government Reform at Washington Policy Center and is based in the Tri-Cities.